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.

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