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.