Monday, January 9, 2012

Above & Beyond the Call of Duty

It was quarter after six in the evening on the night before New Year’s Eve when there was a knock on our door.  It was Benjamin, our day guard.  His shift normally ended at 6 p.m.  “Is Laurent coming?” he asked.  Laurent was our replacement guard who came on Friday night so our regular night guard, Harouna, could have one night a week off to spend with his family.  “He’s probably just running a bit late,” I replied, “so go ahead and go on home.”

When Benjamin had gone, I pulled out my cell phone, looked up Laurent’s number and called him.  After several rings, he answered.  “Where are you?” I asked.  “You said you would work tonight, remember?”  Religious holidays are always a difficult time for us guard-wise because the guards also want to spend some of these holidays with family, either here in Ouaga or in their home village.  We manage to work around this most of the time by having a Christian guard, a Muslim guard, and a couple of replacement guards.  Often, they are willing to replace each other on their respective holidays.  But both Christmas and New Year’s fell on weekends in 2011, making things additionally complicated.  When I had spoken with Laurent earlier in the month, he had indicated that he would be going to the village for Christmas, and so would not be available on the Friday before Christmas Eve.  Fortunately, our Muslim night guard indicated that he would be willing to work that night.  But Laurent had said that he would be back to work on the Friday before New Year’s Eve, and I took his word for it.

“Ooops!” answered Laurent to my inquiry.  “I’m actually still in the village.  Sorry, I forgot.”  Well, this left me in a real pickle.  There was no way I would be able to get any other replacement guard now!  So I decided that we’d just have to pass this one night without a guard.  I estimated that chances of someone jumping the wall and trying to steal something for one night pretty small.  Nevertheless, I removed anything of value from our vehicle, brought inside anything of value that we had out on the veranda, and made doubly sure that all our doors and windows were securely locked or fastened.

Just as I finished, Benjamin, our day guard, called me.  “I just talked to Laurent,” he said.  “He’s still in the village!”  “I know,” I replied.  “So what are you going to do?” he asked me.  “We’ll just do without a guard tonight,” I said.  “Not a good idea,” he answered, “I’ll be right over.”  “You can’t do that!” I said.  “You’ve worked here all day, and it’s not safe to leave your family alone at night!”  But he had hung up.  Benjamin used to work a few nights every week until several years ago when thieves broke into his home, stole anything of value, and threatened his wife.  After that, he didn’t want to work nights anymore.  We couldn’t blame him.

When Benjamin arrived at our place in less than 15 minutes, I again expressed my concern for his family.  He insisted that they would be alright this one night.  But, he said, this is no time for us to take chances.  It was the holidays and people were looking for ways to get money.  Since we were seen as rich foreigners in the neighbourhood, Benjamin was convinced that if we did not have a guard, even for one night, that might be just the chance someone was looking for to jump over the wall and steal something that they could sell to get some money.

We were really touched by his concern and his willingness to sacrifice a night with his family after already spending all day here as the day guard.  That night, as we sat down to a late supper, we thanked God for our two main guards, Benjamin and Harouna.  Each has faults that sometimes drive us crazy.  But they are faithful beyond the call of duty, and that is something no amount of money can buy!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Labour Relations in Burkina

At a recent meeting of our salaried employees, someone voiced a complaint concerning a former employee that had been laid off quite a number of months ago due to the closing of his particular department (he had been offered a job in another department, but had refused).  The plaintiff insisted that the administration should have formally made this person’s layoff known to all staff before it happened, and that the administration had been wrong not to do so.

I’m not sure what purpose it would serve to formally let everyone know that someone is going to get laid off or dismissed, but had I been at the meeting, I would have pointed out that the news of this employee’s upcoming layoff had been shared in a number of informal ways, including at regular staff meetings and in my weekly communications bulletin to all personnel.

In any case, three elected employee representatives came to speak to our Director of Administration on this issue, saying that the administration had been wrong not to formally inform all personnel of the former employee’s upcoming layoff.  They demanded that in the future, they be informed of such things.  Our DA said that this should not be a problem.  He would begin by making a formal announcement of the written warning that one of the elected employee representatives had received recently for being caught goofing off rather than doing his job.  A photocopy of the warning would also be posted on the public bulletin board outside the dining hall to make sure all staff were aware of it.

He was met with expressions of surprise and protests that this was not what they had in mind!  But our DA indicated that by their request, this was indeed among the kind of information they were asking him to make public.  However, according to Burkina labour law, information on an employee’s salary, disciplinary measures, and employment status (among other things) is confidential.  An employee is free to share this kind of information with others if he or she wishes, but the administration cannot formally publicize it.

Therefore, continued our DA, he was very sorry, but he really could not accede to this request by the employee representatives.  And to their credit, they did not argue the point further.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

After nearly two months of waiting, the books I’d ordered from Amazon UK finally arrived here in Ouagadougou.  I’d ordered them in the middle of June and it was now almost the middle of August, so I’d nearly given up on them.  In fact, on the day they arrived, I’d checked the Amazon UK website to verify that there hadn’t been a problem and that they’d actually been shipped.  Sure enough they had, with the anticipated arrival date in Burkina being listed as July 6!

All this got me to thinking that there must be a better way to get items like this to the regions and countries of the developing world where the postal system is not always as fast or reliable as what we’re used to in North America and Europe.  Not only had my package taken nearly two months to get here, but it had cost me a shipping charge of almost $20, which was actually more than the two books I’d ordered had cost together!  Surely, in today’s modern world, there had to be a delivery method that was faster, cheaper, and more reliable!

I’d already thought of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.  We sometimes use this method for various things, seeing as folks coming for short stays usually do not use all their baggage allowance and have room to carry extra stuff.  But the people making such trips are usually few and far between because I really don’t know that many people personally, and no one that I knew was coming from the UK anytime in the foreseeable future.

Then I thought of the Internet and the ability it gives people to connect, communicate, and collaborate on things.  What if someone were to set up an on-line database where people travelling to various locations around the world and not taking their full baggage allowance could register their trip, and people living in such places and wanting stuff delivered to them could go and search for possibilities, getting in touch via e-mail, Skype, chat, text message, or phone call to firm up the details?

For instance, suppose that when I was preparing to order my books, I went to the website to see who was coming to Burkina from the UK in June or July (and maybe even how much spare baggage allowance they think they will still have).  A search yields several possibilities and I email several of the most immediate to say that I have two books that weight approximately so much.  I quickly make arrangements with one person and get their mailing address, to which I have the books shipped (which would only cost me about $5 since it’s local shipping).  Of course, they can open the package to verify the contents once it arrives before placing it in their baggage.

Once they arrive in Burkina, we meet so that I can get my books and the person who brought them can get a pre-determined, fixed payment (maybe between $5 and $10) for their trouble, a win-win situation because I save some money and get my books more quickly, and the deliverer gets some extra money for something he had anyway (spare baggage allowance) and that didn’t cost him a cent.

No doubt, as on e-Bay, there will be some abuses (like the delivery people stealing the stuff for themselves or demanding more payment once they arrive), but such cases can quickly be weeded out with a reliability evaluation system like the one e-Bay uses.  Once a delivery person tries such a trick, they will never be trusted by anyone again and be blacklisted on the website.  Ditto for those who want stuff delivered but try to abuse the system by shipping illegal stuff.

Anyway, food for thought.  Anyone coming to Burkina in the near future?

Monday, August 1, 2011


After nearly two years of Kathy getting after me to make a BBQ, I finally did it.  You see, we can’t go to Home Depot, Zehrs, Canadian Tire, or Wal-Mart to buy a BBQ here.  If you want a grill to cook steaks, sausages, or hamburgers on, you’ve got to make it yourself.  To that end, we’d brought a nice set of enamel grill racks with us, but I had to draw a design for the BBQ and then get a local welder to make it (someday I’ll have my own welding machine to do stuff like this, but we didn’t want to wait THAT long!).
What finally pushed me to do it this time was Kathy’s statement that she had some nice sausages to BBQ for Canada Day... if only we had a BBQ to do it on :)  That was it.  I got out my paper, pencil, and tape measure, and started to sketch out a design complete with the appropriate measurements.  Then I took it to our friendly neighbourhood welder and gave him the sheet with the design, along with a verbal explanation.

Commissioning stuff to get made here, especially western-style stuff, is always an adventure because despite drawings and explanations, you’re never quite sure what you’re actually going to get.  If they’re not familiar with the thing you want them to make, they’re going to make up what they don’t know.  For this reason, I stopped by the welding shop each day to see how things were coming along.  Of course, since I can’t stand over him and watch every step he makes, by the time I come along, some things will already have been done and it’s too late to change it.

For instance, even though I hadn’t drawn it in, the welder decided to fabricate a tubular steel frame for the firebox.  Thus my inside dimensions became his outside dimensions, and the racks no longer fit snugly just inside the firebox (where they could be removed but otherwise not move) but now sat on top of it (where they could slide over and even off the BBQ.  So I had him weld a couple of steel stops in place.

And instead of using heavier angle iron for the legs as I’d put in my drawing, he built them out of light tubular steel.  This was good in the sense that it made the BBQ lighter to pick up and move around.  But when you opened the lid, the weight of the lid shifted the centre of gravity sufficiently to the rear of the BBQ to cause it to tip over backwards.  His solution?  Weld a long, narrow container near the bottom of the front legs in which I could pour some cement to provide the weight needed to keep the thing from tipping over.

Okay, so it’s not perfect.  But after it was painted black, it looked pretty good.  And it worked.  Next time, I’ll make some modifications.  But for now, it makes Canada Day sausages just fine :)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sorry, We Don't Have That

The other night, Kathy & I decided to try a new restaurant at the edge of the Ouaga 2000 (the ritzy area of Ouaga) called Restaurant Weebi (which means “woman” in a language of Niger).  This is a converted villa with outdoor seating and the bedrooms inside converted into private dining rooms.  The one downstairs is air-conditioned, but the two upstairs only have ceiling fans.  We decided to eat in the air-conditioned room.

The menu looked impressive, featuring pizzas (we saw the large brick oven for this purpose at the far end of the courtyard), African dishes like poulet bicyclette, poulet rabilé, tô and leaf sauce, rice and peanut sauce, etc., and regular dishes of steak, veal, chicken, and fish.  After some time of looking through it and trying to make our choices, Kathy ordered the escalope de veau (veal) and I ordered a pizza.  The waitress returned several minutes later.  “Sorry,” she said, “but the veal dish is not available.”  So Kathy ordered blanc de poulet (white chicken meat).  Several minutes later, the waitress was back again.  “Sorry, but we don’t have that either.”

“What DO you have?” I asked.  She said, “Steak, chicken, and fish.”

“Okay,” I replied, “then my wife will have the filet de boeuf with mushrooms and sauce.”  The waitress thought for a moment.  “I don’t think we have that either,” she finally intoned.

I looked at her.  “How would you like to go and get the chef?” I said.  “I’d like him to come and tell us exactly what on the menu is actually available!”

This appears to be an unfortunate characteristic of many Burkinabè restaurants, certainly when they first open, but often extending for some time past their opening date.  They offer an extensive menu that looks impressive... until you try to order something.  Then you find out that they don’t actually have everything listed on the menu.  And if you ask why, they’ll say that they plan to offer these things as clientele and interest in them builds up.

I don’t know about Burkinabè customers (maybe they're used to this and just want the regular old dishes anyway, so the fact that the more exotic ones aren’t available is no big deal), but this is not the way to gain expatriate customers like us who are usually looking for something different than the usual old dishes (which we can get in virtually any restaurant in Ouaga).  This was the third time in just over a month that we’ve run into this in new restaurants we’ve tried out.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I was pretty excited to find poutine on the menu in a new restaurant near the airport.  So I ordered it, my saliva glands already starting to work in anticipation of what promised to be a tasty meal on a nice evening out with Kathy.  Actually, this new restaurant had been constructed on the grounds of a former one called La Quebecoise, which had also served poutine (the only place in Ouaga to do so).  Imagine my disappointment when the waitress returned a few minutes later to inform me that the poutine was not available (although the restaurant had already been open for a number of months by this point).  I wondered how hard it could be to cook up some fries (which were already on the menu), and put some cheese and gravy on them?  In fact, I ended up choosing a couple more items on the menu that weren’t available yet until I finally hit one that was.

Back at the Restaurant Weebi, the chef finally came and although he was not terribly helpful (he appeared almost as clueless as the waitress), we eventually came to an agreement on something Kathy was prepared to eat and he was prepared to cook.  In the meantime, we tried to enjoy being alone and talking together in a nice, air-conditioned room with interesting pictures on the walls and a comfortable vinyl sofa, chairs, and coffee table in addition to the dining room table and chairs on which we were sitting.  And we did enjoy ourselves to some extent, although my pizza was rather dry because it was lacking in tomato sauce (there was some, but it looked like it had been spray-painted on) and Kathy’s meat was rather tough.  Until we got the bill and realized that we’d been charged an extra 5,000 FCFA (about $12) just for the use of the air-conditioned room!

Chalk one up for experience, but I don’t think we’ll be going there again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

About a Shirt

At a recent meeting in Kenya, I recognized someone that had attended an IT workshop on our centre in Ouaga a little while back.  So I greeted him.  “Hey!” he said, “Do you recognize this shirt?”  I looked at his shirt and a light when on in my head.  “Yes!” I said.  “I have one just like it!”

Then he proceeded to tell me his story.  At the beginning of nearly every workshop or seminar on our centre in Ouaga, I drop by at the beginning to introduce myself and welcome people to the centre.  He told me that he and his wife were there that day at the opening of the IT workshop and they never heard a word that I said.  They could not take their eyes off my shirt!  Then and there, they decided that they needed to get a shirt just like that!

In the following days, they spent all their spare time combing the streets and shops of Ouaga for this material.  Only a few days before their scheduled departure, they finally found the material at the Village Artisanal (Artisans’ Village).  After buying it, they then found a tailor and ordered the shirt made.  Which is how he ended up wearing a shirt exactly like mine that day in Kenya.

When we met several weeks later in Cameroon, we decided to both wear the shirt one day and pose as the ebony and ivory twins :)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In the Spotlight in Cameroon

It was Saturday night in Yaoundé and I didn’t just want to go back to my room.  A group of us from Burkina had arrived in Cameroon the night before for a week-long seminar that started on Monday.  So we had the weekend free.  After getting hooked up to the Internet, catching up on sleep, and wandering around the SIL Cameroon centre reliving some memories of a previous stay several years back, I was ready to stretch my legs and see some local scenery.

Walking down the street, I came upon a crowd gathered at the side of the road.  In fact, it was spilling out into the street so that approaching vehicles were constantly honking their horns to warn people to get out of the way.  The centre of attention was a guy with a microphone in front of a little roadside boutique with a banner announcing its grand opening.  For a while, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to sell something or preaching a sermon!  He was as animated as all get-out and used a lot of religious terminology.

I soon realized that I was the only white person in the crowd and figured that sooner or later, I would be singled out for attention.  So I avoided eye contact with the announcer as much as possible.  However, at one point, he invited a young man from the crowd to join him.  After a bunch of talking, he told the young man that God was going to bless him.  Whoever he shook hands with in the crowd would give him 1,000 francs (about $2).

Immediately, the crowd parted like the Red Sea in front of Moses, right towards me!  I quickly moved to one side, trying to blend in, but the crowd kept moving aside until I was left standing all alone.  The young man headed right towards me, followed by the announcer with his microphone, followed by a guy with a video camera.  After shaking my hand, the young man waited expectantly.  No one made a sound.  Finally he said that I was now supposed to give him 1,000 francs.

Well, I didn’t have 1,000 francs on me (I had a 5,000 franc note in my pocket, but wasn’t about to tell him that!), so I told him that I was sorry, but I didn’t have what he wanted.  He shook my hand again several times, no doubt hoping to prime the pump, but I kept apologizing and say that I did not have 1,000 francs to give him.  Finally he gave up.

At this point, the announcer grabbed my arm and tried to pull me front and centre with him!  But I dug in my heels and refused as politely as I could to go.  It was a great relief to me when he finally gave up too and carried on the show without me.  Whew!