Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Just got back from a few days in the village with Josh and Melissa. Josh got a chance to reconnect with friends there, and Melissa got to experience squat toilets, geckos on the walls, eating porridge, sauce, and meat with bare hands, and a Kusassi church service. I’m not sure she appreciated the first two items in the list, but I think she enjoyed with the last two :)

We also visited the Nazinga Game Reserve, doing a tour in late afternoon of one day, and another the following morning. We saw several varieties of antelope, a couple of crocodiles, some warthogs, baboons, and elephants. One troop of elephants even crossed the road right in front of us. When we began to drive forward again, the two largest males turned and charged our truck because they sensed us as a threat. Fortunately, they stopped well short after I took the hint and quickly came to a halt (no sense trying to accelerate on the dirt road because they would charge and outrun us before we could get up enough speed to escape!).

Prior to returning to Ouaga, we made a quick detour down to the border of Ghana. There, we could park our truck on the Burkina side, leave our passports with the Ghanaian immigration officials, and walk across the border to have some lunch in a Ghanaian restaurant. Of course, to pay for the meal, we had to exchange Burkina francs for Ghanaian cedis with the local, ambulant moneychangers, always a challenge when you have no idea what the current exchange rate is! But I think we did okay :)

We came back to Ouaga late yesterday afternoon, tired but content with our trip. What Kathy & I appreciated most was being able to sleep in our own bed again!

Tonight is New Year’s Eve. Josh & Melissa have gone into town on the moto to buy some fireworks to help bring in the New Year in proper Burkina style. We wish you all a very Happy New Year 2009!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Humour

It’s Christmas in warm, sunny Burkina (kind of like Christmas in Florida, but without the ocean nearby). Driving down the streets of Ouaga at this time of the year, we see things now that we never saw the first years we were here: ambulant vendors selling Christmas decorations, Christmas ornaments, miniature Christmas tree lights, and even artificial Christmas trees! But the funniest thing they’re selling are inflatable plastic Santas. We couldn’t resist buying one to have some fun with!

The first thing we did was stick it in our next-door neighbour’s kitchen window. Prior to this, our courtyard guards kept their stuff in a couple of trunks under this window and would scare the bejeebers out of her whenever they were there and she came into the kitchen. So she had the trunks moved. You can imagine her reaction when she arrived the other morning to make herself a cup of coffee and saw a stranger in front of her kitchen window! Haha!

A few days later, it was cash withdrawal day at the finance office on our Centre in Ouaga. So we got a small, empty tomato tin, a miniature version of the kind used by the beggar boys here, hung it on Santa’s outstretched plastic arm, and placed him just outside the finance office door. What made this particularly funny was that fact that prices of nearly everything, including basic foodstuffs, had increased sharply in Burkina earlier in the year. Our jest suggested that even Santa was having a hard time making ends meet here!

We primed the pump by placing 10 francs in the can. It was a real hoot watching and listening to people’s reactions! And by the end of the morning, we were 100 francs and a sucker candy richer for our efforts :)

To bring Santa back home, we placed him in the passenger seat of our neighbours’ car. Fortunately, they had forgotten to look the driver’s door, so we were able to get in without having to break a window :)

Once back at the ranch, we placed him on top of our water tower. The harmattan wind was pretty strong at times, so we tied him down to a piece of plywood. It didn’t last, though. The last time we saw Santa, he had taken a suicide dive off the water tower and was laying face down in our front yard.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cross-Cultural Awareness 101

We overheard an interesting conversation at a neighbouring table while we were eating lunch at a little restaurant in downtown Ouaga one weekend. No, we weren’t eavesdropping! The lady just spoke loudly enough so that everyone in the place could easily hear her, whether they wanted to or not!

It seems that a number of years ago, the lady speaking (a white woman from America) had gotten married to a Mossi man from Burkina. Whether she was originally here with the Peace Corps, with a development organization, or with the embassy, I don’t know. In any case, it turned out to be a culturally enlightening experience for her, an experience that she had come to share with another American lady who, we soon discovered, was planning to also marry a Burkinabè man.

Her main piece of advice? Check out the family situation! She was not aware of all the other family members that her husband had to support, something that was a tremendous drain on their financial resources. But that wasn’t all. When her husband’s sister came to visit, she treated the American wife like she was the servant girl, telling her to run errands and do things for her. And when her husband’s mother came to visit, she ignored the wife completely! And her husband would do nothing about it. She felt that her husband had deceived her by not being up front and telling her about his family situation before they were married.

Kathy & I couldn’t help but shake our heads. This poor woman had obviously missed taking Cross-Cultural Awareness 101. What Burkinabè man would think it necessary to tell his fiancé about his family situation? What business is it of hers? Whatever it is, she’s just going to have to accept it anyway, right? Unless he’s been to Europe or America, a Burkinabè man wouldn’t know that American women expect to be treated differently in a marriage relationship than an African wife. Even if he did, he’ll just assume that since she’s marrying him, her expectations and behaviour will now be just like that of a Burkinabè woman. After all, this is Burkina Faso she’s living in, not the USA! And she’s not marrying an American, is she?

As for the way the family treats her, well, a man’s relationship to his family takes priority over his relationship with his spouse. They will always be his family, but a wife is regarded as a stranger, a foreigner that’s come into the family. Should the husband die, his family will come and take the children to finish raising them. And the widow? Well, she can just go her merry way. She’s not really part of the family anyway! So of course the wife is going to be treated like the servant girl by other family members.

Since this woman was the one who had had some cross-cultural exposure as a result of having come to Burkina, she should have expected such differences, and should have been the one to do some research into what was expected of her as the wife of a Mossi man. Or, like she was doing for her friend, someone with experience should have sat down with her and explained to her what she was in for. However, she was probably so smitten by Cupid at the time that she wouldn’t have listened to anyone that had tried to tell her anything anyway. She would have explained everything away, or just let it go in one ear and out the other, saying that she was sure everything was going to be just fine. From what we could tell, that’s exactly what her friend was doing!

Friday, December 19, 2008

At the Airport

Last night, we waited outside Ouagadougou International Airport for Josh & Melissa to arrive from Canada to spend the Christmas holidays with us here in Burkina. Ouagadougou International is not big like Lester BP in Toronto or Charles DG in Paris. And it is currently undergoing some major construction work. But even without that, we would have been required to wait outside. There’s just not enough room inside.

In addition, it is the time of year when the Muslim faithful return from their pilgrimage to Mecca. This meant that there was a larger than normal crowd of family of friends waiting to welcome them back, a colourful assortment of men, women, and children all chattering excitedly and straining to catch a glimpse of their loved ones when they come out through the airport doors.

After nearly an hour of waiting, they began to appear, many dressed in Middle Eastern garb and headgear, carrying souvenirs of their time in Mecca in their hands or around their necks. Family members rushed to receive them, hugging excitedly and hurrying to help carry their baggage, often just a big bundle wrapped in a sack and carried on the head or shoulder. Some even tried to run into the airport, but security guards held them back and ordered them to remain outside.

At one point, the crowd began to press in so closely that the guards began physically shoving people back en masse in an effort to clear a path for those trying to get out of the airport. Some of the young men in the crowd got angry and began pushing back or arguing with the guards, provoking an even more violent reaction. We were right in the middle, shoved back and forth with everyone else, and for a moment were afraid we were going to become part of a riot! However, things managed to calm down and, apart from a few more efforts by the guards to keep the crowd at a proper distance, there were no more problems.

Each time some traveler of note from Mecca came out, he would raise his hands in the air and the crowd would erupt with cheers. When the pilot of the Air France flight saw this as he was coming out, he too raised his hands in the air, causing the crowd to cheer him too. He really hammed it up, keeping his hands raised, smiling, nodding, and thanking everyone for their accolades as if he too was a celebrity. Everyone had a good laugh at this :)

Finally, Josh & Melissa came through the doors. One time of excitement was over. Another was about to begin.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Night Driving in Burkina

This past weekend, some members of our houselady’s family were driving into Ouaga from regions east of the city. Just after nightfall, and still some distance from the city limits, they had a flat tire. While a couple of the men busied themselves with changing the tire, the rest of the people in the vehicle went to wait out the repair under a nearby tree several metres from the road.

In the distance, another vehicle was approaching. It only had one feeble headlight, not an unusual occurrence in Burkina, where many vehicles do not have properly functioning lights, signals, etc. Despite the limited visibility this afforded, the vehicle was traveling at a relatively high rate of speed.

Suddenly, the stopped car appeared in the oncoming vehicle’s headlight. The driver swerved frantically to avoid a collision, driving right off the road to do so… and straight into the group of people resting under the tree! Two were killed instantly. Three more landed in hospital, one with serious injuries, including a near-complete scalping.

Night driving is particularly dangerous in Burkina and we try to avoid it whenever we can. But sometimes we get caught. One time, coming home from someplace in northern Burkina, we saw a headlight approaching in the distance. Was it a car, a truck, a motorcycle, or what? Just to be on the safe side, I slowed down and moved to the right as much as possible. The light came closer and closer, too bright to see what was behind it.

Suddenly, as it began to go by us, I saw that it was a tractor-trailer. But it was no ordinary tractor-trailer. This one was a sidewinder, which meant that it had been in an accident somewhere and now traveled with the wheels no longer aligned properly. Consequently, the back end of the trailer stuck out further into the road than the front of the truck. In addition, there was a piece of steel beam sticking out from the trailer and it was headed right for our windshield!

I swerved sharply onto the shoulder of the road. A split second later, the steel beam flashed past, taking my driver’s side rearview mirror with it. Had I continued without swerving, it would have decapitated me. It was some time before I stopped shaking inside! And you can bet that I was thanking God for sparing me one more time!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How to Negotiate for a Woman

This past Sunday afternoon, we went out to negotiate for a woman. No, it’s not what you think at all! Of course I know that I already have a wife! And no, Kathy did not want me to get a second one to help her with the housework! It was on behalf of a friend.

Aristide is a young man I’ve known since we first came to Burkina. His family owns the big photo place in town where I always get my pictures developed. Anyway, he invited us to be part of the group of family and friends that goes to the potential bride’s family to ask for her hand (in hopes that they will get all of her, of course :) It all began several months ago when a representative of the future groom’s family went to the future bride’s family to ask about the possibility of the two families being joined through marriage. The bride’s family set a date and time for the future groom and his family to come and make a formal request for the girl.

Interestingly, the groom’s parents do not accompany their son. They stay at home. Since this is not just a joining of two individuals but a joining of two families, it is the father’s oldest brother, the head of the larger family, that accompanies the young man and his friends. Likewise at the other end, it is not the girl’s parents who are addressed, but the girl’s father’s oldest brother.

We arrived at the future in-laws’ place to find a large number of the girl’s family awaiting us on the veranda. After we were all seated, greetings were exchanged and water was served. In the traditional way, a bag of kola nuts was offered to the host family as a sign of goodwill. The bag, still closed, was passed around to each member of the girl’s family so everyone could be a witness to the transaction.

After some further discussion, which we did not understand, Aristide presented himself and shook hands with the members of the girl’s family. Then we were invited into the house to partake of a meal of rice, vegetables, beef, and salad, after which we shook the hands of all the girl’s family again and said goodbye. That appeared to be the end of this traditional ceremony. In three months’ time, the civil and religious wedding will take place.

Oh yes, by the way, we did manage to get the girl!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Innovative Cellphone Use

Speaking of cellphones, I’ve been reading some interesting stuff about them and their uses in developing countries. A number of years back, cellphones were being used by village widows in India as a means of making a living when most other doors for income were closed to them. These ladies functioned as the local phone booth for their villages, charging fellow villagers a fee to call family and friends. In places where there were no other phones of any kind, this was a welcome service.

Then there are the Indian fishermen who use their cellphones to call different ports while still out at sea in order to get the best price for their catch. Prior to this, they simply made for the closest port and were obliged to take whatever price they were offered by the buyers. Knowing the effort involved in going to another port and that the quality of the fish would deteriorate with the time it took to get there, the buyers literally had the fishermen over a barrel and took advantage of this to negotiate rock bottom prices for their hard-earned catch. But the cellphone has now shifted power from the buyer to the seller, enabling him to negotiate and sell to the buyer willing to pay the highest price for their hard work.

Now Safaricom Kenya, a cellphone operator, has introduced a mobile-payment service. It allows subscribers to deposit and withdraw money via Safaricom’s airtime sales agents and send funds to each other by text message. Here in Burkina, we can send airtime top-up funds to each other, but little else. Safaricom’s service enables you to pay people for services rendered (provided they also have a cellphone, of course). Thus you can pay wages to a casual labourer or employee, taxi drivers can receive payment without having to carry around cash, money can be sent to family & friends in emergencies, and so on. Wow, now that’s cool! Vodafone, Safaricom’s parent company, has also launched this program in Tanzania and Afghanistan, and plans to introduce it in India too. Evidently, they forgot to mention Burkina Faso, but I’m sure it’s just a temporary oversight :)

Friday, December 12, 2008

More Cell Phone Blues

Yesterday was Burkina’s Independence Day. We ended up staying home most of the day and working on getting our house in order for Josh & Melissa’s arrival next week. A bit of painting, installing some closet shelves, sorting through stuff, packing some away and putting the rest out for recycling. By recycling, I don’t mean blue-box, curbside pickup. I mean putting it out on the veranda and telling the guards to take what they want and pitch the rest. There’s very little they don’t take!

Yesterday I thought my new cellphone was history. A few days ago, it stopped being able to send text messages. It could still receive them, and do everything else it was supposed to do, but I couldn’t send them. Which is probably the feature I use the most cuz it’s cheap and I can communicate what I want to say better than I could with an actual phone call, where I often have to compete with noise and mumbling on both ends.

So I took it back to the place I bought it from, which is one of Burkina’s biggest cellphone companies. The lady there spent half an hour trying all sorts of things, but couldn’t get it to work. She sent me to their main office. The lady there took only five minutes to figure out that she couldn’t fix it. She sent me to their authorized repair company. The lady there spent ten minutes trying what the other two ladies had tried, to no avail, and finally said they could do a physical service routine on it for about $7. If that didn’t solve the problem, it would just be better for me to get a new phone. Unfortunately, I’d have to pay for it since my one-month warranty expired two weeks ago.

Imagine my delight when, an hour later, I returned to pick up my phone and learned that they’d been able to fix it. The problem? Moisture. Don’t ask me how. This is the dry season in Burkina! Maybe I should stop wearing it in the shower. Or carrying it under my armpit?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Out With The Heat, In With The Dust

Finally, we have some cooler weather here in Burkina! For the first time since our arrival in September, we’re now able to sleep without having the A/C on all night. And when we go outside in the mornings, we actually don’t start sweating until after we’ve begun drinking our morning coffee. In fact, it’s so fresh and cool that we appreciate our cups of coffee for their warmth as well as the shot of caffeine they give us!

However, the cooler weather also brings with it another phenomenon: the harmattan wind. This is an annual wind that sweeps in off the Sahara Desert to the north and east of us from December to February, carrying with it fine clouds of sand and dirt that filter through every crack of our house and get into absolutely everything. At times, the air is so thick with dust that if this occurred in any city in the western hemisphere, they would issue a smog alert! You can visibly write your name on top of a table that was cleaned only 20 minutes earlier.

Last time we arrived back in Canada, I brought my laptop in for servicing to replace a burned-out motherboard. Upon retrieving it, I was asked where I had been over the past several years… Apparently, the inside of my machine was filled with a fine, red dust. Probably why my motherboard burned out!

Yesterday was an official holiday in Burkina: Tabaski. For the uninitiated, this is a Muslim holiday, not a steak sauce! The main method of celebration here appears to involve setting off firecrackers. We sure heard a LOT of them yesterday!

I’m off to the village today, if I can ever get out of this admin office before noon :)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Employer-Employee Relations

The other evening, Kathy went out into our courtyard to tell our night guard something. She didn’t see him anywhere, so she called his name. No answer. So she called again, this time louder. Still no answer. Heading towards the gate, she called again, even louder. Nothing. Opening the gate, she saw him just on the other side, talking with someone in the street. It seemed impossible that he couldn’t have heard her. However, rather than questioning him about it, she passed on her message and went back into the house.

Afterwards, she wondered whether he had deliberately ignored her. Perhaps it's just because women here are not always accorded the same level of respect as men. However, I went to ask a friend, whom I respected for his understanding and advice in terms of cultural matters, what we should do about it. If it was a lack of respect, it wasn’t something I wanted to continue, especially since I would be away from time to time and Kathy would have to deal with this man on her own.

His advice was clever indeed! He said that the next time it happened, she should ask the guard if he had heard her calling him. If he answers yes, he will be openly admitting that he is dissing her, something he will be reluctant to do because it will have obvious unpleasant consequences. If he answers no in an attempt to cover himself, she should say to him, “Well, how can you do your job as a guard to listen for and chase off intruders if you can’t even hear me calling you in a loud voice? Maybe we should be looking for a guard that can hear well enough to do his job properly.” Ouch! If that won’t set him on the straight and narrow, I don’t know what will!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Meeting

I feel like I’ve just come back from another planet! The difference between village life and life in the bustling metropolis of Ouaga is incredible! However, it’s going to be a fact of life in our work here in Burkina Faso, so I guess I’ll get used to it eventually. But for the moment, it’s like going through a mini culture shock each time I make the trip to the village and back.

I actually quite like spending time in the village. Life is more relaxed there and time is more flexible. There’s nothing quite like sitting in Pastor Emmanuel’s courtyard at night, looking up at the clear sky full of bright stars, and feeling the tranquility and quiet wash over you like a refreshing rain. This is certainly not the case in Ouaga where the atmosphere in anything but tranquil and the air is anything but clear. Now that the rains have ended, everything is as dry as dust and the constant traffic on all the roads of the city, most of which are not paved, kicks up enough dust to create a constant fog that makes even the city of Toronto on a smog-alert day look like a Mr. Clean ad!

Anyway, I digress. As I mentioned in my last post, I was invited this past weekend to the founding meeting of a Kusassi association that would focus on using the Kusaal language as a means of promoting community development. After our arrival at Pastor Emmanuel’s on Friday night, the three men initiating this association worked late into the night to clarify points in the association's statutes and by-laws, and to prepare the agenda for the meeting the next day.

The meeting was scheduled for 10 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, but actually started only when all the key people had arrived, which was at 12 noon. That’s normal for an agricultural society that lives largely by the rhythm of the seasons rather than the ticking of a clock. The waiting time is easily filled with greeting people, catching up on the latest news, and planning future activities.

Village chiefs, church pastors, Muslim imams, and other invited guests and interested folks all gathered under the shade of a large mango tree in the village of Zaamé to participate in bringing the new association into being. The statutes and by-laws were read and discussed, a director was elected (our Kusassi co-worker, Pastor Emmanuel), and an administrative team was put into place. All in all, an interesting experience. Of course, my very limited ability in Kusaal meant that I didn’t understand a lot of what was said, but I had someone beside me who was willing to interpret anything I wished to know.

Finally, the meeting drew to close. Good thing, because by this point, everyone was tired and hungry and ready for the tasty meal of ignam, salty tomato sauce with onion, and meat prepared by the ladies of the Zaamé church. After a final cup of Nescafé to bring us back to full alert after the sedative effect of a full stomach, we headed off to spend another tranquil evening in Pastor Emmanuel’s courtyard in the company of good friends, and looking up at a clear sky full of bright stars.



















Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gotcha!

The other day, I was sitting in the administrative director’s office. I had agreed to take his place from time to time on our Centre in Ouaga to give him a much-needed break. He’s a valuable but overworked man who has to deal with… well, lots of administrative stuff! I’ve begun learning how to do a few of his many tasks, but am far from being able to handle anything that isn’t pretty simple yet. Each time I have to replace him, I pray that nothing complicated comes walking through my door or shows up in my e-mail box!

That morning, he had just dropped in to see how I was making out. Then he popped over to talk to someone in another office for a few minutes, leaving his keys and folders on the desk. Just a few minutes later, the receptionist came to inform me that there was someone waiting in reception to see me. I didn’t recognize the name and the receptionist was unclear about exactly what it was the man wanted. But I had my suspicions. It was probably someone coming to ask for money. Not sure how to handle this, I mentioned that the real Administrative Director was just in an adjoining office. “Yes, I already talked to him,” said the receptionist, “and he said that you would look after it.” Well, thanks a lot! With some reluctance, I ushered the stranger into my office.

Sure enough, it was a request for money alright. The stranger said that he had occasionally stayed at our Centre guesthouse in his former job as an educational inspector. But he no longer had that job and was now down on his luck. I asked a bunch of questions and got a bunch of information, none of which I could be certain was true. Scammers are a dime a dozen here and some of them are pretty creative. This fellow only wanted a handout of about $1200 to get him started back on his feet, enough to buy some food, some medicines for his father, a used motorcycle, etc, etc.. Well, I guess if you’re gonna ask, you might as well ask big!

Part way through talking with this man, the Administrative Director quickly came into the office and picked his keys and folders off the desk. Completely ignoring my look of desperation, he simply flashed me a smile and disappeared out the door! Ha! So much for help when I need it!

But I got him back! The next day, when he dropped in to see me, I told him that the stranger of the previous day had informed me that while he could not get any help from corporate funds, the Administrative Director had previously agreed to give him some money from his personal funds and that he had come that day to collect it. With as straight a face as I could manage, I went on to say that I had given the man a significant amount of money from the cashbox and had logged it in as a charge to the Administrative Director’s personal account.

You should have seen his face! He looked like he was going into shock! It was absolutely priceless. Then I cracked up. I just couldn’t hold a straight face any longer and began to howl with laughter. When the Administrative Director realized that I’d just been joking, he nearly collapsed with joy and relief! The moral of this story? Don’t mess with Mike! :)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

That Was Close!

Last Friday, I lost nearly all the oil in my truck engine (about 6 of 8 litres) in about 10 seconds. I’d had my oil and filter changed at the beginning of the week and the filter must have come loose. It could have had something to do with the rough trip I took to the village a few days later. That road is something else! I’m amazed that the oil filter is the only thing it shook loose!

Fortunately, it happened only a hundred yards or so from our home on a quiet back street. And I happened to see the black trail of oil behind our truck in time to stop and shut off the motor before any real damage was done. I’m especially thankful it didn’t happen while I was on my trip earlier in the week! In that case, I would have had to make my way to a town or village where I could catch a crowded minibus back to Ouaga, probably the next day.

As it was, I was able to call someone at our Centre, get them to come out by moto with an oil filter wrench, and have them drive me around on the moto to buy another filter and some engine oil. It took a while, of course, but within a few hours, I was back on the road. From now on, I’m going to carry a spare oil filter!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Trip to the Village

Just came back from a trip to Zabré and to the Kusassi region. Josh & Melissa are coming to visit us in the middle of December to spend Christmas with us, and one of the places we want to take them is to the Kusassi region. Josh wants to go because he still has friends in the village, and Melissa has never had a village experience. However, since we no longer have a house in the village, I needed to find us a place to stay for a couple of nights.

Pastor Emmanuel did some preliminary legwork for me and had a few places to show me in Zabré when I got there. One of the most promising was a former center for a Burkinabè rural development agency. They had built a beautiful place with a conference room, residences, and guest housing, complete with lights, fans, running water, and air conditioners! Quite an impressive thing in a small Burkinabè town! But once their mandate was done in the area, they turned the entire center over to the state, who has since leased it to a local entrepreneur. This turned out to be a local village chief that I happened to know from our time down there in years past.

He was willing to rent me a 2-bedroom, living room, and indoor shower & toilet place for 4,000 FCFA/night (about $10). It already had beds with mosquito nets in it. When the development agency had it, they charged 10,000 FCFA (about $25) for a small room with a single bed in it! True, there was now no electricity (so no electric lights, fans, or A/C) since power comes from a generator and it costs too much to run it for only a few people. But I thought that was a good deal and wanted to try it out for a night. In true Burkinabè fashion, I asked if he would take 3,000 FCFA instead. He agreed :) He even cleaned the place and provided two battery-powered LED lamps to give me some light.

The next day, Pastor Emmanuel and I drove down to the Kusassi village of Bougré. This is where I want to build a small place to stay while we continue with our language learning, data gathering, and linguistic analysis of the Kusaal language. It took us longer than I’d planned to get there because we had to stop and say hello to several church leaders along the way (it would have appeared rude if we hadn’t). Good thing I like visiting with folks :) Despite the delays, I was able to look at a few potential plots before it was time to head back. I’ll need to look some more before I make up my mind, though. Nothing that I saw truly fit the bill yet.

We want an area that’s close to the village, but not right in it so that we won’t have people looking over our wall or in our windows 24/7. We also don’t want to be too far from the main road, not only so that we can easily get there, but so that people going by can easily drop by to say hello if they want to (we do want SOME social contact!). And we’d like at least one big shade tree in our yard :) We’ll let you know how things go from here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More Green Technology in Burkina

In The Economist article I mentioned last time, it was noted that in cooking done over a fire, 80% of the energy provided by the wood or dung is typically wasted. And then there is the issue of the pollution caused by all that smoke. The solution, according to the article, is to develop a carefully designed stove to enclose the fire, direct the heat into the pot, and dramatically reduce both fuel consumption and the problems caused by pollution. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Especially in a country like Burkina, where meals are traditionally cooked over wood fires in a big pot placed on three stones. Women often have to trek for hours to find firewood and haul it home. Most of the heat provided by that wood is lost to the surrounding air. And every older village woman in Burkina wheezes from years of inhaling acrid wood smoke while slaving for hours over a hot fire every day.

A professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University, along with his students, has developed stoves that cut fuel consumption by half and particulate emission by 75%. The design has been commercialized by an NGO that hopes to sell them first in China and India, and then worldwide. I wish them luck! I hope they did their cultural research because what makes good sense to us may not be so acceptable to those who are the target of our efforts, and for reasons that have nothing to do with reduced costs and increased efficiency. These may be the criteria that we deem most important, but it’s a view not necessarily shared by potential recipients for whom other criteria, usually cultural ones, are the determining factors.

Our Kusassi co-worker, Pastor Emmanuel, told us about an effort several years ago in his region to improve cooking fire efficiency. An organization developed a simple mud stove from local materials that nicely enclosed the normally open fire, directed the heat to a hole in the top for the pot (thereby significantly reducing wood consumption), and directed the smoke up a chimney away from the cook. From a western perspective, you’d think women would jump at such an improvement that not only saved them time & energy spent hauling so much firewood, but also prevented them from burning their lungs out with smoke. Not so.

To begin with, the women didn’t like the new stoves. They didn’t cook meals the same way the open fire did. Besides, this wasn’t the way their mothers had done it and taught them to do it. But the clincher was the reaction of the men. They said that the food cooked on such stoves didn’t taste the same anymore. What made the difference? No more wood smoke flavour from the swirling fumes produced by an open fire! That did it. The women went back to their open fires.

Anybody else got any bright ideas?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Green Technology in Burkina

In a September issue of The Economist magazine, I came across an article about how the green revolution is not only a growing trend in the western or industrialized world, but is also making inroads in the developing world. New technology is being developed to help people in poorer countries both minimize energy usage and maximize the efficient usage of energy that is available, not so much for the reasons of conservation and environmental concern that we have in the west, but because they are cheaper and sometimes safer alternatives for people who are really struggling to make ends meet.

LED lights are one example. These little bulbs use a fraction of the power required by conventional flashlight bulbs, enabling users to stretch their battery power much farther than usual. Considering the pathetic quality of the cheap batteries available here in Burkina, this is a definite advantage!

They’re also brighter and safer than the traditional kerosene lamps used in the village. I can still see the awful injuries one woman received when she attempted to refill a kerosene lamp. It was nighttime and the flame was going low, so she began pouring more fuel into the lamp’s reservoir, leaving the lamp burning so that she could see what she was doing. Suddenly, the flame jumped from the wick to the pouring fuel. Out of surprise and fear, the woman jerked back, spilling kerosene all over her dress and legs. The flame followed…

LED technology seems to be catching on here in Burkina. We’re beginning to see more and more of them. Other technologies, however, have not been so successful. For instance, a number of years ago, a relief and development organization decided that since Burkina has an abundance of sunlight, solar cookers would be a much cheaper and more efficient way for village women to cook their meals. That makes sense, doesn’t it? What woman wouldn’t be willing to give up hauling firewood and spending hours over a hot, smoky fire when she could simply put the ingredients in a pot, place it in the solar cooker, and do other productive work while the meal cooks itself?

Alas, the organization had not done its cultural research. The simple fact of the matter is that the main meal was cooked at night after dark (it gets dark at 6 p.m. here). By their way of thinking, what woman would spend precious daylight hours cooking a meal when she could be out working in the fields? Cooking, with the help of light from the fire, could be done at night. Fieldwork couldn’t. The solar cookers were a bust.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Breakfast at the Koulouba

When we pulled up to the Patisserie Koulouba on Saturday morning, it seemed that all the parking places were already taken by cars, trucks, and motos. But the parking guy energetically waved me into a space a little further down in front of another business. Assuming he knew what he was doing, we turned in, got out, and left the vehicle in his care. For 100 FCFA (about 25 cents), he would keep an eye on our truck all day if necessary.

Running the gauntlet of vendors selling everything from vegetables, tourist items, and timepieces to CDs, DVDs, and phone cards, we entered one of our favourite downtown pit stops. The Patisserie Koulouba is a Lebanese owned café / bakery where we like to buy bread, cakes for special occasions, pastries to snack on, or whatever else they have to offer. After all, there are no Zehrs or Tom Thumbs here in Ouaga, so we have to find alternatives to these well-known North American food stores.

However, our favourite thing to do here is have breakfast. Sitting down at a slightly rickety table reminiscent of an outdoor café in Europe, yet within reach of one of several air conditioners in the place, we greet several of the servers who now know us by sight. One of them comes to take our order. They don’t bother to bring us menus anymore because we nearly always order the same thing: one café au lait with two cups (there’s enough coffee for one cup each), a orange juice, and two ham & cheese & onion omelets (they’re normally just ham & cheese, but we like onions on it too, so they humour us).

Looking around, I see the place is nearly filled with a mixture of Africans and westerners, and even a few orientals. The westerners and orientals are either tourists or people who live and work here. The tourists are easy to spot, especially the men. They wear shorts. In Burkina, only young boys or athletes wear shorts, not normal men. But the tourists don’t know that, so we won’t hold it against them. The Africans wear everything from traditional outfits to western shirts and pants. Muslim men tend to wear long, flowing robes. Many of them greet each other upon arriving and spend a few minutes exchanging news. Those who do not have anyone at their table to talk to are talking to someone on their cell phone.

While we’re waiting, a young man who shines shoes comes in. Mine are horribly dusty and dirty from the activities of the week, so I motion him over. He takes my shoes and leaves me with a pair of sandals to keep my feet off the floor. When my shoes come back a few minutes later, they are spotless and shiny. A real deal for 25 cents!

Now our food arrives. The café au lait comes first. The coffee is in a small stainless steel carafe. It’s dark, filled with fine sludge from the finely ground beans, and tastes terrible, even with sugar and milk in it. But it brings back fond memories of earlier days, and has the necessary caffeine to bring us fully awake, so we drink it anyway. The milk comes in a separate container, and it’s boiling hot.

Then comes the orange juice, freshly squeezed that morning. At $2/glass, it’s a little expensive, but there’s nothing like it’s cold, refreshing taste to quench your thirst after a few mouthfuls of omelet and coffee.

Finally come les pièces de résistance: the omelets along with slices of baguette bread. Time to dig in. Boy, it’s good to be back in Burkina!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friends, Burkina-Style

I’ve made some interesting friends and acquaintances since first coming to Burkina back in the late 90s. Of course, nearly everyone we meet would like to be our friend since we’re rich foreigners (by their standards, at least). And as polite Canadians, we find it hard to say no or rebuff people. But over the years I’ve learned to be somewhat selective.

Many of our early attempts at friendship were a disaster. The main reason is that friendship here automatically includes access to financial and material resources. In other words, if a Burkinabè is my friend, he has the right to ask me for money, something we did not at first understand. As Westerners, our definition of friendship definitely does NOT include freely sharing financial resources! It took us a while to discover this crucial difference between the Burkinabè and Western definitions of friendship. And until we did, many of our initial attempts at friendship ended rather abruptly because we felt that those who claimed to want to be our friends were just out to exploit us economically. But once we understood “friendship” from THEIR perspective, things began looking clearer.

While we would like to help as many people in need as possible, we have limits, limits to our resources, and limits to the number of friendships we can handle whose primary purpose is access to those resources. These kind of relationships tend to be tremendously draining in more ways than one because they’re primarily one-way, from us to them. Consequently, I’ve tried to form at least a few friendships with people with whom I can have a two-way relationship, people who are closer to my socio-economic level or with whom the relationship has mutual benefits for both parties.

One class of people like this is that of higher-level civil servants. Thus I made friends with the chief of police in Zabré, a man who was not only a nice guy, but who had no need of financial resources from me and who could be helpful to me should I have problems that fall into his realm of authority. For his part, he was glad to be able to talk with someone who was not likely to ask him for a favour or to overlook an infraction of the law. Such requests are just the kind of thing that prevented him from making friends with most of the local folks.

Another class that I found I can make two-way friendships with are business people. Several of my friends fall into this category. One owns a hardware store. Another is a member of a family that runs the largest photo developing business in Ouaga. A third is a top-notch mechanic. And another is a Lebanese man who runs a tire & repair shop. They appreciate a friendship with a foreigner (it’s different) but are wealthy enough that don’t need my business to survive. I like them as individuals, but also occasionally benefit from their products and services. If I require something special or need a service that goes beyond what they usually do, they are more than happy to do it for me.

A final class for friendships is street vendors. I’ve gotten to know a few that are truly friendly and helpful, and these have developed into great two-way relationships. In addition to being able to hold a pleasant and informative conversation with them, I regularly buy their products or services, and they provide me with things I need when I need them. The first was initially a seller of batteries and rolls of film for cameras. He no longer does that, but I still drop by to see him whenever I’m downtown, and occasionally ask him to run an errand or find something for me there (services for which I pay him). Another is a seller of books and magazines.

Oh, that reminds me, I need to see what’s in the latest copies of Time, Newsweek, and The Economist… I’d better go and give this guy a call! At $5/magazine for the latest issues, this is a deal that can’t be beat!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Salon International de l'Artisanat de Ouagadougou (SIAO)

The biannual, weeklong International Arts and Crafts Exposition of Ouagadougou (SIAO) opened this past weekend. The event is in its 11th year. It draws exhibitors and craftsmen from all over Africa, and visitors and buyers from all over the world.

Kathy & I have thought of going, but question whether it’s worth the effort. We attended once back when we first came to Burkina. There are lots of beautiful and creative (and expensive!) things on display and for sale. On the last days of the event, there are even some good deals to be had as exhibitors are anxious to unload as many of their wares as possible before traveling home again. However, what we remember most is the intense heat, the immense crowds of people (in which our young teenage daughter was groped), and the looooong, dusty walk back to where our vehicle was parked.

From all reports, things have not improved in those areas. Our replacement guard runs a small clothes washing and ironing business near the SIAO, about 6-7 kms along the main road from our place. He says the site is an absolute zoo. The traffic jam is never-ending and the dust is constant and thick enough to choke you. Since nothing except the main road is paved, people looking for a parking spot or trying to find a way through or around the congestion are forced to take the dirt sideroads, inevitably raising huge clouds of fine dust that are then further swept along by the wind.

There really are no parking lots as we know them, just a few empty spaces near the exhibition centre for the attendees privileged or lucky enough to get them. Everyone else must find parking somewhere on the neighbourhood streets. Our guard says that unless you know the area well, chances are you’ll never be able to find your vehicle again!

I think we’ll do our arts and crafts buying in the local boutiques. We may not find the really creative stuff that characterizes the SIAO, but it’s less hassle (though not less haggling :) , definitely cheaper, and supports the local economy. And that sounds good to us!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Evening With A Friend

My Burkinabè friend and I sat in plastic chairs before a low, dinged up metal table at an outdoor eating-place just off the main road near our home. He’d come for an unexpected visit and now it was suppertime. I decided to take him out to eat rather than having Kathy cook something last minute for all of us.

Although it was dark outside, traffic still moved busily along the main road: big transport trucks, smaller SUV vehicles, cars, and taxis, as well as people on motos and bicycles. Exhaust fumes hung in the air and swirled under the glare of the streetlights. Fortunately we were back far enough from the road that, except for an occasional whiff, they never reached us. We weren’t so lucky when it came to the odours from the nearby ditch that sometimes doubled as a public bathroom. But these were mostly covered over by the smell of grilled food from nearby vendors.

We had a choice of grilled fish, grilled mutton, or rotisserie chicken (poulet télévisé for those of you familiar with Ouaga). We chose the chicken. While we were waiting for it, we sipped on cold Cokes and talked.

He told me about one of his sons that had decided that things were not to his liking at home. Some time ago, he had taken off for Ivory Coast to look for work and make his fortune. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that there’s a vast difference between the dream and reality. He found no real work and ended up with someone who was exploiting him as virtual slave labour. So he wrote to his parents, saying that he wanted to come home, but didn’t have money for a bus ticket.

His parents made arrangements to borrow money from an acquaintance in Abidjan. She was to buy the bus ticket and give it to him. Instead, she gave him the money directly! The boy spent it on new clothes, going out with his friends, and who knows what else. He certainly didn’t come home! His parents were furious. Not only did their son not come home, but they are facing increasing pressure to pay back the loan they took out for his ticket. It’s almost a month’s wages for the average labourer. Ah, the joys of parenthood…

Guess that means I should pay for the Cokes and chicken, eh?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Shopping at the Zogona Market

On Saturday, Kathy decided to do some shopping at the Zogona Market. There are lots of outdoor markets all over the city of Ouagadougou, including several in our own neighbourhood, but they don’t have the selection of fruits and vegetables we’d like, and often not the quality either. However, the main drawing card of the Zogona Market is the fact that it has a meat market, a fact clearly publicized for all the world to see by the circling vultures overhead

We pulled up to the meat market, a long brick building housing a dozen or more vendors. The air was filled with the sound of machetes hewing large chunks of animal carcasses into more manageable portions, knives being sharpened to reduce those portions into more useable forms, and people yelling questions, comments, and orders to each other. Off in one corner the meat grinder was busily turning out ground beef. Flies buzzed everywhere.

We headed straight for our vendor, Moustapha, and ordered several pieces of meat and a couple of kilos of ground beef. While he worked on getting that ready, we could go and do the rest of our shopping, picking up the meat on our way back.

Actually, Kathy went and did the rest of the shopping. I don’t particularly enjoy just following her around from one vegetable stall to another, stooped over virtually double so as not to bang my head on nearly every rafter of the wood and straw hangars that provide shade for both vendors and customers (Kathy does not have this problem). Instead, I headed for a nearby maquis, a place with tables and chairs that serves cold drinks to people wanting to cool down, take a break, or visit with friends. Ordering a Coke, I nursed it along, listening to the loud music they had playing, and watching the world go by until Kathy came to tell me she was done.

Whew! After such an exhausting morning, I was more than ready to go home and put my feet up for a while!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Adventures in Take-Out

A few weeks ago, we discovered that there’s a place about 10 minutes from us that offers take-out pizza (for those of you familiar with Ouaga, it’s the Paradisio restaurant on the ISO road). So last night, we decided to try it. I was elected to go and get our take-out dinner. After looking at their extensive selection of pizzas available for order (two pages on the menu!), I opted for one that had ingredients we were largely familiar with from back in Canada, staying away from stuff like eggs, potatoes, and beans (this time), as well as fish and seafood (out of deference to Kathy). The price was 4,200 FCFA (about $10). This is relatively cheap by North American standards, but if experience at another restaurant downtown was an indicator, we should get a decent-sized pizza that would feed two of us for that price. I was told to come back in 45 minutes, which I did.

To my surprise, the pizza was actually ready. The box was impressive, with beautiful graphics. It was a little smaller and felt a little lighter than I expected, but I hurried home before the pizza inside cooled off too much. What a sight greeted our eyes when we opened the box, drooling with anticipation… a small, very thin-crusted, grossly misshapen pizza with hardly anything on it! I should have taken a picture of it to show you all, but by the time I got out the camera, the pizza was virtually gone (no, I wasn’t that slow; the pizza was that small!). We consoled ourselves with the thought that at least we got a nice pizza box for our money :)

Apparently we could have gotten the pizza delivered. But who knows what shape it would have been in after bouncing on the back of a moto for several minutes on the rough, potholed road leading to our place. However, considering that the one I picked up looked like it had already been dropped at least once, I guess there wouldn’t have been much difference. On the other hand, if you saw where we live here on the outskirts of Ouaga, you’d realize we’d be lucky to ever see the thing at all! Ours is not the easiest place to find in broad daylight, never mind in pitch darkness at night.

I think that next time, I’ll just go out to the main road and get some televised chicken. It’s cheaper, it’s faster, and although it’s not Swiss Chalet, it’ll at least last long enough for me to get a picture of it to show you!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

So Whatever Happened to Stew?

Some of you have been wondering what happened to Stew, our annoying 5 a.m. alarm clock… er, I mean the rooster we received as a gift from the chief of Youga. Well, we thought about having him for Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, which was only a few days later, but quickly decided against it. Chickens here are truly “free range” birds and their meat has all the juicy goodness and taste of well-cured shoe leather! And there’s barely enough meat on them to warrant the effort it takes to cook them. A quarter chicken dinner at Swiss Chalet has more meat on it than an entire free range bird here!

So we ended up giving him to our day guard, Benjamin (our night guard, Harouna, got the last one). And not just because Stew was an earlier riser than we were. Our yard just doesn’t have the room to let a chicken or two run around in it (and we don’t want to be stepping in you-know-what all the time either!). And besides, since meat of any kind is a rarity in the diet of most Burkinabè because it’s just too expensive for them, a free chicken is much appreciated by the average Joe (and since they’ve never had Swiss Chalet chicken to compare it to, they think it tastes pretty good!).

Yesterday, I asked Benjamin what he ended up doing with the rooster. Did they decide to use him as the beginning of a little flock of their own, or had they already eaten him? “Well,” said Benjamin slowly, “he’d begin crowing at 2 o’clock in the morning. Then he’d start again at 3 a.m., and again at 4. Finally, we couldn’t take it anymore!”

Haha, I know exactly what he’s talking about!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where's An IKEA When You Need One?

My apologies for not posting anything for the past several days. It’s my goal to post something at least every two days or so, but it’s been one of those weeks where there just aren’t enough hours in a day!

So what’s been taking up all my time? I’ve been building a new bed frame. We used to have a waterbed. Now, while we miss the lakes and rivers of our native Ontario, taking a nightly boat trip on the waves of this special mattress lost its appeal a long time ago! So this time, we brought back a proper mattress. And now we need a proper frame to put it in.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, Kathy decided that it would be handy if we could store stuff under the bed instead of letting that space in our cozy little place go to waste. Good point. So I can’t just go and buy a normal, low bed frame off the street. I need a custom built one, with a metal frame.

There are lots of welders on the streets around here, and at first I thought of drawing up a design and having them make it. They can be really creative, but I like exactness too and I knew that if I wanted them to make it to the standard of quality and precision of measurement that I wanted, I’d have to stand over them the whole time. In that case, I might as well just weld it together myself…

Fortunately, there is a welding machine here on the Centre. It’s not being used much anymore, so with a little persuasion, I was able to get an exception to the rule that equipment is not to be taken off the Centre and brought the machine to our house. All this week, I’ve been out buying steel and wood, cutting metal until my arms are ready to fall off, and welding until I’m totally drenched in sweat (all with the help of our trusty day guard, Benjamin). In this hot weather, I must be nuts to be doing this! But that’s love for ya! :)

The metal frame is now finished except for the painting, and I’m currently working on the wooden parts: the mattress board, the headboard, and the footboard. Should be finished sometime next week. It’ll be nice to finally be off the floor!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kusassi Reunion

Our reunion meeting with the Kusassi this past Saturday was a time to remember. Not just for the length of the day and the endurance of the rough journey both there & back, but also for the joy of seeing people again for the first time in over 3 years, many of whom wondered if we were actually ever coming back! For my part, I was glad to see that none of them had died of illness, accident, or age during our absence, an all too-common possibility in this country where average life expectancy is still under 50.

The meeting was held in the town of Youga, the easternmost one in the Kusassi region, and also the site of a newly opened gold mine run by, believe it or not, a Canadian company called Etruscan Resources. Evidence of this new activity was everywhere. Although the mine was located some distance away, this once sleepy village was sprouting new buildings, company vehicles with flashing lights drove too and fro on the main road near our meeting place, often disrupting the speakers, and men with hard hats walked by from time to time, either on their way home or to work.

Other signs of progress struck me during our time there also, though these were not directly linked to the mine. Formerly, whenever there was a meeting of church leaders and others like this, one would find a row of bicycles nearby, these being the main mode of transportation available to them. Now there was a row of motorcycles. The other thing was cell phones. Nearly everyone had them and people were constantly leaving the meeting to answer a call.

This was great! No longer did the church leaders have to pedal long hours over poor roads and trails to get to a meeting. And cell phones now made it possible to communicate and set up meetings without having to go around and physically touch base with everyone first.

Prior to leaving Youga, we stopped to visit the new chief of the village. He had heard that we were in the area and sent a message asking us to come and see him before we took off. Unlike most village chiefs who rarely if ever left the area, this one was a newly retired gendarme who had just returned to the area after a career outside. He received us graciously, we talked, and then he sent us on our way with a rooster as a parting gift. This gift has woken us up early for the past two mornings here in Ouaga. I think we’ll call him Stew…



Friday, October 10, 2008

Creative Financing

“So how much do you want the bill of sale made out for?” The year was 1982, and Kathy & I were buying our first car together. The question came from the owner of the used vehicle we were buying. We must have looked a little clueless because he continued: “I can make it out for less than the sale price if you want. That way, you’ll pay less tax on it.” This was our first encounter with creative financing, but certainly not our last. (FYI, we opted to stay on the straight and narrow, and had the bill made out for the price for which we were actually buying the car).

We ran into it again when we arrived in Burkina. After purchasing some supplies at a hardware place, I asked for a receipt so that I could remember to note the expense in my personal financial records later. “So how much do you want the bill made out for?” asked the proprietor.

This was my introduction to a whole vast system of creative financing here. However, unlike the form we encountered in Canada, which was designed to save you money, the Burkina form was designed to make you money. Organizational employees and purchasing agents often use this method to help supplement their salaries and make ends meet or, having met them, to help increase their personal net worth. Upon purchasing equipment, parts, or supplies, the buyer and seller will agreed upon an increased figure to put on the bill, which will then be submitted to the organizational finance office as proof of expenditure. And typically, the buyer and seller will split the difference between the real price of the purchase and the amount paid for it according to the bill.

So let’s say that André is sent by his employer to go and buy some auto parts needed to repair a vehicle used by the company or organization he works for. Not sure how much they will cost, his boss gives him a float of 150,000 FCFA to do it. André goes out and negotiates to buy the necessary auto parts for 80,000 FCFA (most prices are negotiable rather than fixed in Burkina). He and the seller then agree to put 100,000 FCFA on the bill. André pays 100,000 FCFA for the parts from the float money. The 20,000 FCFA difference gets split between him and the seller, both of whom put 10,000 FCFA in their pockets. André returns to his employer with the parts, presents the bill for 100,000 FCFA, and hands back the 50,000 FCFA left of the float money.

A variation on this theme was explained to me by my mechanic friend, Zana. Employees responsible for their organization’s fleet of vehicles will search out mechanics or garages with whom they can make a creative financing deal (whether they are actually competent to properly maintain and repair the vehicles is irrelevant; shoddy work means more return business… at least for a while). They promise to bring all their organization’s vehicles to a particular garage, provided that they get a certain percentage of kickback money. In fact, some mechanics and garages actively solicit people with whom they can make these kind of deals, offering a cash reward up front for a definite contract. Zana said he’s lost business because he’s refused to cut such deals.

Most people in Burkina who engage in such creative financing consider this to be an acceptable avenue of income supplementation. It’s only wrong if you get caught! :)

Here’s a question for you: If you were sending someone out to buy stuff for you here, what steps could you take to avoid this happening? What would you do to ensure that you’re not paying an inflated price for goods? Or would you bother? (Okay, I know that’s three questions, but you know what I mean; work with me here!) Looking forward to your ideas!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Paying for Your Education

I sure was glad I was sitting down when I received the repair estimate for the air conditioning in our truck!

Remember my bonehead move a couple of weeks ago when I let an inexperienced yahoo try to recharge the system? And that the A/C hasn’t worked since? Well, I decided that the best place to get this looked after properly would be at a Nissan dealer. So that’s where I was. Sitting in air-conditioned comfort in the waiting room. After over an hour of driving around in the heat and exhaust fumes of downtown Ouaga trying to find the dealership on an out-of-the-way back street, the cooler temps were a real blessing! But that’s where the good news ended.

The first thing they told me was that there was no freon gas left in the system. I wonder how the yahoo managed that? Several hours later, they told me that the compressor was shot. Now even I know that’s bad news! This was gonna be expensive… Okay, guess how much? I’ll bet you’re no closer than I was… 7,000 bucks! That’s how much it was going to cost to fix my system!!! In fact, they were just going to replace the entire thing, compressor, condenser, radiator, hoses, belts, and all! Ouch!!!

Well, we don’t have that kind of money, so I simply paid the $85 diagnostic fee and started home, wondering what in the world I was going to do. We were going to need A/C, especially during the hot season next year. And we had a day-long trip to the village coming up on Saturday…

Suddenly I remembered Zana! This was a mechanic I’d gotten to know during our first years in Burkina, a man of integrity who’d always done a good job on our vehicle for a reasonable price. In fact, I was right in his area! So I dropped in to see him. It was like old home week! After all the back slapping and laughing and catching up on each other’s lives, I mentioned my A/C problem to him. “I know just the man for this job,” he said. “It took me years to find someone who knew what they were doing in A/C and guaranteed their work. If anyone can fix it, this man can.” Wow! This was the first hopeful news I’d had in ages!

Zana said he’d look after everything, so I left the truck with him. The next afternoon, I got a call. “I’ve got an estimate for you,” he said. “The compressor is indeed shot, and a few hoses need replacing. Total cost is just under $700.” I thought about it for all of two seconds. “Do it,” I replied.

Now there are two Canadians driving around Ouaga, grinning from ear to ear as they bask in the blast of frigid air from the dashboard vents, and pretending they’re enjoying a cool fall day in Ontario. Who, us? Homesick? Naw…

Monday, October 6, 2008

Employee Challenges

Yesterday morning, we lost our replacement night guard. He handed his gate key to the day guard coming on duty and said he wasn’t coming back. Hallelujah! This is one of the best things that’s happened to us all week! Why? Because it saved me the really unpleasant task of sacking him.

Basically, we were not happy with this man. We inherited him from the previous employer in our housing unit, but found him less than a model employee. He was consistently late for work, always with some excuse or other. Numerous times I’ve had to speak to him about taking longer than permitted meal breaks, and about staying at our house when we were gone rather than sitting and chatting with friends at a nearby snack bar (some guard, eh?). He was once caught with a key trying to get into our place while we were away (he’d worked as a cook for the previous tenant; fortunately we’d had the lock changed!). And he has “lost” money we once gave him to pay a bill.

However, we didn’t have the heart to send him away and deprive him of the income he was able to earn by working for us two nights a week either. Like most Burkinabè, he’s working two jobs and trying to make ends meet.

But his departure process began a couple of weeks ago when he presented us with a request for a 50,000 FCFA loan (this is about $120 or over a month’s wages for a full-time guard). In light of upcoming school expenses for children, this was not an unusual request. On the other hand, at his current level of part-time employment with us, chances are that he’d likely never be able to pay it back. His other employer (a restaurant where he works as a cook) had refused to loan him any money.

Feeling badly for him, we finally decided to lend him 20,000 of the 50,000 FCFA he’d asked for. Most Burkinabè would have been very happy with that, and he agreed to take it and pay back 1,000/wk. But when I went into the house to get the money, and came back out to give it to him, he said sullenly, “You know what? Forget it. It’s not worth taking just 20,000. I don’t want it.”

After much thinking about the whole thing, I finally decided that this guy needed to take his loose work habits and lousy attitude elsewhere. And the sooner, the better! I’d had enough of him. But I still wasn’t looking forward to telling him to leave… Thank goodness he beat me to it!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Drinking to Beat the Heat

Wow, it was HOT yesterday! I spent most of the day working on replacing the shelves in our bedroom closet. Termites made Swiss cheese of the old ones :/ Normally we can watch out for termites in the house and catch them before they get very far. But this happened while we were away in Canada. Nothing made of wood is safe in Burkina!

Anyway, as I was saying, it sure was hot yesterday. When outside, I was constantly moving into the shade. Direct sunlight was brutal and something to be avoided at all costs! Inside the house was okay so long at I was near a fan or air-conditioner. At one point, however, I was wedged into the closet, trying to fit a shelf (non-linear walls and odd-shaped right angles mean custom-fitting is imperative). There was no circulation in there at all, and within seconds I was soaked in sweat and dripping over everything. Whew! Was I ever glad to get out of there! My first stop after that? You bet it was the refrigerator for a cold drink!

We drink a lot more here in Burkina than we ever do in Canada. Not just because we’re thirsty more often, but also to avoid dehydration, a condition that can sneak up on you and clobber you before you even know what hit you! Because of the heat, we’re constantly losing body fluids through evaporation, whether we’re aware of it or not. Sweat and thirst are two helpful indicators. That’s easy. What’s dangerous is that sometimes these fluids evaporate without us being aware of it at all. On hot, dry, breezy days, body fluids don’t even have a chance to form as sweat on the skin before they’re carried off. And sometimes, you’re not even thirsty. But unless you want to feel like you got hit by a truck in a couple of hours, accompanied by nausea and vomiting, you’d better be gulping some fluids to replace what you’re losing!

The challenge is “What to drink?” One obvious option is water, definitely filtered, and preferably cold from the fridge. Kathy likes that. I don’t. I crave something with flavour. So my options are bottled soft drinks (only The Real Thing and related Fanta products in Burkina; Coke has a monopoly here :), beer, juice, or drink mixes. Well, I do drink my fair share of Coke and Fanta, but after a while I start to find them too sweet and too fizzy to drink in large quantities. Beer is less sweet and less fizzy, but more expensive and has some negative effects when taken in sufficiently large quantities to avoid dehydration that discourage me from going down that road! Juice is really expensive.

So that leaves drink mixes, like Kool-Aid. These are cheap, taste good, and can be quaffed in large quantities. The only problem is that they’re not available here in Burkina. Due to the country’s European colonial heritage, the stores here import bottles of flavoured syrup. Oh, yes, there are some packaged drink mixes here, but most leave a lot to be desired when it comes to variety and taste!

We did bring a few packages of Kool-Aid us, but they’re rapidly running out. If anyone is inclined to help replenish our supply, whether of Kool-Aid, Hawaiian Punch, or whatever else is good, it would be much appreciated! Several small packages can be slipped into an envelope and sent to Burkina for the price of an overseas stamp. Standard flavours like grape and orange are appreciated, but anyone sending more exotic flavours will receive an extra blessing :)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Today is officially a holiday in Burkina Faso. It’s the celebration of Ramadan, the happy and welcome conclusion of a month of fasting for the followers of Islam. In a hot country like Burkina, a month of fasting is not an easy thing to do! Especially when it means not eating or drinking ANYTHING during the daylight hours! In addition, many Muslims continue to carry out their regular daily work responsibilities. Darkness is a welcome relief as they are then permitted to eat and drink something. The determination with which these folks stick to the strict requirements of their faith during this time of the year is indeed admirable!

As I’ve mentioned before, our night guard is a Muslim. In our experience since coming to Burkina, we’ve found Muslims to be excellent guards. They are usually more respectful and conscientious in their work than most.

For the first time since coming to Burkina just over 10 years ago, Kathy & I have now officially become employers. Prior to this, others employed the guards associated with our places of residence, and we reimbursed them for our part. Now this responsibility has fallen to us. I spent yesterday afternoon filling out the necessary employer and employee registration forms, and calculating both employees’ salary for the end of this month. Never having done it before, I found it somewhat complicated (calculating hours worked, overtime, holiday time, pension and unemployment deductions, as well as deducting amounts for cash advances already taken, and a fixed deduction for loan repayments). Fortunately, I had the help of our administrative director who is well skilled in this area!

One of the things he recommended was that we increase our guards’ salaries somewhat. The cost of living has gone up significantly in Burkina (as elsewhere), but salaries have not, making it difficult for ordinary people to make ends meet. On top of this, it’s the time of year where students go back to school and parents are required to shell out significant amounts to enroll their children and provide them with the necessary school supplies. As a result, most are forced to find sources of credit. Our guards have taken out loans with us for this purpose, which they will repay little by little over the next 10-12 months. Several employees on our Centre (with whom we have built a good relationship) have also approached us for the same reason, and we have helped out as we are able.

It wasn’t until we came to Burkina that we discovered what it’s like to be millionaires. Being rich (compared to our Burkinabè friends, employees, and colleagues at least) was not something we anticipated prior to coming here, and must admit that we do not find it very easy to play such a role! Suddenly, everyone sees you as a source of help and credit. And a person who does not share their wealth, at least to some degree, is regarded extremely unfavourably here! To strike the right balance between generosity and retaining enough to meet your own expenses is a constant & challenging juggling act :) Thank God we’re not millionaires at home in Canada too!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How To Be A Class Idiot

It’s a relatively cooler day so far today, thanks to an early morning rain. But it won’t last for too much longer. Even as I write, the sun is managing to make its presence felt through the still overcast sky, and things are starting to heat up. Which is normal, but rather unfortunate for us at the moment. Why? Because the A/C is no longer working properly in our truck, making it difficult to drive anywhere without major discomfort. And not just because of the heat. Driving with the windows open anywhere here in the city is a personal health hazard!

At all hours of the day, in addition to the dust and dirt kicked up by the traffic, even on the paved roads, the air is thick with exhaust fumes from thousands of oil-burning, blue-smoking, two-cycle moto and moped engines. Add to that the exhaust from hundreds of old and/or poorly maintained cars, trucks, and tractor-trailers, and you have a sure recipe for respiratory illness! There’s nothing quite like having a thick, blue cloud of exhaust blow in through your window at an intersection as you pass a big truck roaring through its lower gears in an effort to get moving through the light!

And why isn’t our A/C working right now? Well, I hate to admit it, but… it’s because I’m an idiot! The A/C was still functioning, but after several years, it was no longer at the top of its form, especially when it was really hot outside. However, rather than taking it to the dealer, I engaged a local yokel like we used to do during our last terms in the country.

I should have clued in when I saw him trying to attach a recharge fitting that wouldn’t connect properly. He was just fixing to hold it on manually while his apprentice began opening the freon tank when I called a halt and told him to go and get a proper fitting.

My second clue was when he came back with a working fitting, but attached it to my A/C system without first hooking it up to the hose from the freon tank! Liquid freon shot out and turned to billowing clouds of vapour while the guy, instead of removing the fitting, tried to now attach the hose in the face of a high pressure jet of liquid gas! I didn’t try to stop him because I was frantically trying to back up out of reach of the ever-expanding cloud of yellow gas that was now swirling around the truck. No way I’m breathing that stuff!

Finally, everything was connected and the recharging began. After 15-20 minutes of filling (at least that’s what I assume he was doing!), the air coming from my vents felt no cooler than before. Then it began to noticeably warm up! The refrigeration guy said that it was because the truck wasn’t moving. It would work properly once I started driving.

After he’d gone, Kathy & I drove over to our house to see how things were going there. Warm air blew from the vents. The A/C compressor sounded funny and began kicking in and out. I decided to shut the A/C off until I could make my way to a real Nissan dealer to get it looked at. I sure hope the compressor’s not shot! I always say that you have to pay for your education. For letting this guy work on our truck, I probably won't only be paying for my education. I should fail the class and be sent back to Grade 1!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Changing the Signs on Memory Lane

Last night we decided to go to the American Rec Club for supper. This is a place that was created primarily for employees of the American embassy nearby, but fortunately they’re not prejudiced and allow us Canadians to come in too :)

When we first came to Burkina back in the late 90s, access to the premises used to be as easy as driving up to the gate. But since the attacks on several American embassies in Africa several years ago, it’s not so simple any more. Barriers and security have been beefed up significantly, including a search under any vehicle wanting to enter the embassy premises (of which the Rec Club is a part).

The Rec Club has a restaurant, bar, small leisure book library, video library, swimming pool, tennis court, and exercise facility. As a family in former years, we used to pay for a yearly membership to enjoy a number of these privileges, particularly the swimming pool! During the hot season, this is THE place to come for a refreshing dip.

This time, however, we came for the food. Don’t need a membership for that, just enough money to pay the bill :) It’s a great place for those hungering for a little “back home” food. They serve hamburgers, Tex-Mex dishes (burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas, etc), chili, bacon & eggs, and the only lemonade in all of Burkina Faso! All in relatively comfortable, air-conditioned surroundings.

Francis, the server, is an old-timer. So is the cook. Although it’s been three years, both of them recognized us and asked how the kids were doing.

A lot of the places we’ve gone to over the past three weeks since coming back to Burkina have been trips down memory lane. This will probably be the case for a while yet as Kathy & I visit places anew that we last enjoyed as a family. But slowly and surely, new memories will be made to replace the older ones as we continue our life and work in Burkina as empty-nesters now.
I once saw a Toyota ad in a magazine that sums it up nicely: “What to do when the kids leave home? Do the same!” Yup, I’d say that’s exactly what we did!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Learning from the Mistakes of Others

Ah, we’re on the home stretch now! The tile work (final cleaning) will be done tomorrow, and the painting in the second bedroom will be done on Saturday. On Monday, I can start working on modifying our waterbed frame for our new mattress-in-a-box, and we can look forward to being in our own (albeit disorganized for the moment) place again!

Yesterday, Hamadou and Pastor Emmanuel came by. Hamadou had come from his post as school inspector over 200 kms away several days ago. Pastor Emmanuel arrived yesterday morning on public transport, a minibus crammed with people and loaded to almost twice its height with baggage, bikes, motos, supplies, and animals on top. I had to admire the man’s determination. Not only is the ride itself an endurance test (5 hours of traveling squished in like a sardine with dozens of other people in hot, humid weather, bouncing along a muddy potholed road for at least the first 75 kms), but he did it even though he had an upset stomach, and got soaked in the rain on the way to the loading area in Zabré early that morning!

We spent most of the day talking about the Kusassi Association. Actually, they did most of the talking. I listened and learned. One of the most interesting things I heard them talking about was what they had learned from seeing other organizations, associations, and committees working in the area: treasurers taking off with funds, the ineffectiveness of long-distance management by directors or presidents far from the area, mismanagement by local administrators, lack of foresight and plans for long-term sustainability, being satisfied with short-term results but neglecting to train local leadership for continuing benefits & effectiveness… the list goes on (isn't it true that we learn more from the mistakes of others than we learn from what they've done right?). You can bet that I urged them to put all this knowledge to use when setting up and running the new association!

Pastor Emmanuel told us that the Kusassi church leaders were overjoyed to learn that we had indeed arrived back in Burkina. They are in the process of organizing a celebration for early October. What a great day that’s gonna be!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Art of the Deal - Burkina Style

Holy cow, we nearly had WWIII in our courtyard here this morning! If you’ve been reading my posts up to this point, you’ll know that it all started several days ago when our landlord engaged an inept tile layer to put tiles on our bedroom floor. I declared the resulting shoddy workmanship unacceptable and suggested that my friend, John, do the work instead. After a lengthy discussion, which involved the landlord agreeing to hire John, and Kathy & I paying the additional price difference, John and his crew started on the job. For some bizarre reason, I figured that the matter was all settled and everyone could get on with life. Boy, was I wrong!

This morning, the inept tile layer and his crew showed up again, ready for another try to make good the fiasco of the other day. The landlord was right behind them, eager to engage them again in order to recuperate the cost from them of the roughly $70 worth of tiles that went out the door in pieces yesterday. Of course, John was not in agreement with this course of action! Neither was I. The difference was that he was much more vocal about it! Soon he and the landlord were waving their arms in the air and yelling at each other virtually at the tops of their lungs!

Finally, I managed to get between them and calm things down. “I thought we had an agreement yesterday,” I said to the landlord. “Now you want to change it! How are we going to get anything done if each new day you keep changing your mind about how you want to do things?” “Well, that’s the way we do things here,” he replied, “we modify agreements as necessary.” “Fine,” I said, “Then John can finish doing our bedroom floors, because I don’t want your guy in there again, and your guy can do the bedroom floors in the apartment beside us. That way I get the nice floors I want, and you can get your money back from the other guy in labour.”

After a little more negotiating, this was the new course of action agreed upon by all parties concerned, and John and his crew went back to work.

Kathy & I couldn't help but wonder how long this would last. (Can you blame us?) Well, we soon had our answer! In mid-afternoon I received a call from John saying that the landlord had come back to apologize for his behaviour and to ask John to do all of the remaining work! John and his crew had already finished laying the tiles in both our bedrooms, and it was a great-looking job (though not quite done) compared to what the other guy had done! The landlord had seen it too and realized that he had been too hasty in wanting to dismiss John and re-engage the other guy. There is, however, one condition: he wants Kathy & I to pay for the $70 in wasted tiles!

Tomorrow promises to be an interesting day! I think I'll need to suggest a few modifications to this plan of action. After all, isn't that how they do things here? :)

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Home Improvement Blues II

Oh, no! This would not do at all! I had just walked into our bedroom to take a look at the tile work that had been done on the floor on Saturday. I had suspected at the time that it was a rather rough-and-ready job. What I saw before me now confirmed it. Okay, I realize that I needed to be prepared to lower my standards for home improvement workmanship here. But this was totally unacceptable! I was not prepared to lower my standards completely to the floor! (Pardon the pun :)

Several rows of tiles were longer than others. Some tiles were obviously crooked. And as for being level, a drunken sailor could have done a better job!

I'm not normally a confrontational kind of guy, but I was ready to not let the tile layer set foot in our place again! Fortunately, the landlord arrived first. I showed him the work. I’m not sure he saw anything wrong with it like I did. However, I insisted that it not only looked terrible, but that the raised edges of off-level tiles would result in stubbed toes and torn floorcloths. No, there was no alternative but to tear up the 90 or so tiles that had already been laid and start over. And I wanted my friend John to do it.

John did an estimate on the spot. But when the landlord saw the labour charge, he walked out. This was highly unusual because normally people try to negotiate if they feel a price is too high. It was sometime later that he returned with another tile layer in tow. Ha! Nice try, but forget it! I stuck to my guns: it had to be John. I already knew the quality of his work.

Well, the landlord was only willing to pay a certain amount for the labour. I said, fine, I’d pay the difference. In my opinion, it’s better to cry once to pay to have the job done right than pay less and get a lousy job that will require costly repairs or redoing later on. An hour later, the pickaxes were flying and the lousy tile job was on its way out the door. Tomorrow, they’ll start doing it properly… I hope!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Into the Ouaga Suburbs

The roadway between courtyard walls was becoming narrower and narrower and I was hoping we’d soon arrive at our destination before we ran out of room to maneuver! A few minutes ago, we had entered a residential section towards the eastern outskirts of Ouaga where Harouna, our Muslim night guard lived. It was Sunday afternoon and we were on our way to meet his family, bouncing over a couple of kilometers of potholed road before arriving at this point.

Now when I say “residential section”, you can’t think of a paved street with houses, trees, and lawns like we have in Canada or the USA. This is a section of Ouaga that has not yet been officially subdivided into lots. People have come here, many from their native villages out in the country, and squatted on an empty parcel of land, constructing a small dwelling or two out of mud bricks and building a wall, also of mud bricks, around the buildings and some empty space to provide a place they can call their own, at least for now. This squatter approach has resulted in a virtual rabbit warren of dwellings of varying quality and zigzag dirt roads or paths of varying width. Some are only passable by bicycle or on foot. My fear was of coming to such a point where I could go no further, and couldn’t turn around either!

Finally, we were there. Walking into his courtyard, we stood in the shade of a couple of small mango trees while Harouna hurried to a neighbour to borrow chairs for us to sit on. Glancing around, we took in the small, tin-doored, four-room dwelling for Harouna, his two wives, his six remaining children, and his elderly mother, as well as the blackened semi-outdoor kitchen area, a roofless bathroom/shower area whose mudbrick walls were so eroded that they threatened to fall at the next rain, a small storeroom, and a paddock for a few sheep and chickens.

Soon the chairs arrived and we sat down. Harouna’s oldest wife had gone to the village to see her family, but his other wife and all the children, from the oldest at 15 to the youngest at 2, came up to shake our hands and greet us. His elderly mother was too infirm to come to greet us, but she dragged herself into view through an open doorway and waved her greeting from there. Almost immediately, we were offered some clean-looking water. However, its purity was questionable, especially in this part of town, and could make us very ill. So, as we demonstrated in so many of our presentations back in Canada, we accepted it with thanks but declined to drink any.

With the whole family sitting on small stools in front of us in the middle of their small, dirt-floored courtyard, and Harouna sitting on a 5-gallon plastic container for carrying water, we asked various questions and listened to answers while the children eyed us curiously and giggled, and Harouna’s wife busily continued her work of embroidering a piece of clothing.

Then it was time to go. Harouna had to get ready for his afternoon prayers at the mosque. But before we went, he wanted me to take a picture of the family. His wife quickly changed from her colourful blouse and skirt into a traditional Muslim woman’s black robe and head covering. The children jostled for a good position, with a neighbour child managing to join the group too. There was much laughter as I began taking pictures. I had to take several because someone put a hand in front of their face, closed their eyes, or looked elsewhere at the wrong time. There was even more laughter when I showed everyone the resulting images, especially when I zoomed in on each of the children’s faces in turn. Most had probably never seen a picture of themselves before! I’ll have to get copies printed to give to them.

As we headed back to our own world of more organized suburbia with cement-walled houses, steel doors, glass windows, gas stoves, electric refrigerators, running water, and air-conditioning, I couldn't help but marvel at the contrast! But that's the way it is here in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.