Thursday, November 27, 2008


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!