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!

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