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 :)