Thursday, January 29, 2009

It's January in Brrrrrkina Faso

It’s been downright cold these last weeks in the land of upright men! Quite a change from the uncomfortably hot, energy-sapping temperatures of months past. We know it’s nothing compared to the frigid temps and deep snow you all are currently experiencing in Canada and in much of the USA, but for the last several weeks, the thermometer here has been dropping to the unprecedented low of 14 degrees Celsius overnight, with even daytime temps remaining relatively cool. Our bedroom air conditioner is receiving a much-needed reprieve, and our living room ceiling fan is collecting dust instead of distributing it for a change.

However, this does not mean that we are now depriving SONABEL (Burkina’s national power company) of some much-needed revenue. We continue to make generous contributions to this important sector of the country’s economy, but through our hot water heater rather than our air conditioner. Believe me, those cold-water showers that were so wonderfully refreshing just a few months ago have a completely different impact now!

The Burkinabè people are especially suffering during this cold time of the year. When we were last down to see them, Pastor Emmanuel and his wife were complaining that it was too cold for them to even sleep properly at night, despite the warm blanket we had given them some time back. We’ll have to see what we can do about that. Harouna, our night guard, comes to work bundled up in a winter coat complete with hood and balaclava. With only the whites of his eyes showing, he looks (no kidding!) like our own, personal terrorist! And the night guard at our centre was actually wearing mittens when I stopped to greet him on my way home.

Even our fellow expats are complaining about the cold. During coffee break on our Centre last week, one lady was lamenting the fact that she didn’t even have a blanket to cover her at night. Who ever thought we’d need one in this otherwise hot country? Another person said that they had to use two blankets to keep warm enough. I said that I only needed one because I had a wife to help keep me warm. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I married her! But I digress… (if you want to know that story, you can ask me later!).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Plot Thickens

Holy harmattan, this rental affair is getting more complicated by the minute! Now I’m finding out that this tax in question is actually a tax on the rental contract and it needs to be paid by someone, either the renter or the landlord. The government actually doesn’t care which one of the two parties pays it. It just needs to be paid.

Anyway, the landlord is insisting that we pay it if we want to keep our rent at the previous level. Guess I now need to find out how much this is going to cost us…

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Eating Crow

Rats! I’m going to have to eat some crow on my last post. I just discovered that Burkina Faso actually has a law requiring foreigners to pay a tax on their rent payments! Looks like our landlord was right on that count after all. It’s payable in advance when you fill out a rental contract, so it’s certainly not in our best interest to try and fix a 3-year contract. If we have to move for any reason before the 3 years are up, we won’t get our money back from the government.

If we don’t have an official rental contract, we’ll get charged for back payments plus a penalty if the government ever comes around to inspect, so we want to get one filled out asap. Looks like that’s essentially what happened to our landlord. He got caught by the government, renting out premises without a contract. Since he also has to pay a tax on rental income, it sounds like they pinched him pretty good for this infraction.

Live and learn, I guess :/

Friday, January 23, 2009

Playing "Chicken" With The Landlord...

A few weeks ago, we received a letter from our landlord in Ouaga. He wanted to raise our rent by 50% for 2009! True, we don’t pay a lot by Canadian standards (about $125/month), but that’s not the point. Any Burkinabè friend I asked about this said that the landlord must be deranged to ask for such an increase. No Burkinabè would pay it!

Well, I don’t think he’s deranged. I think he’s using the “ask for the sun and hope for the moon” strategy. He’s asking for 50% and hoping he’ll get 25 or even 20%. Nothing wrong with that, is there? So we, along with our duplex neighbours, asked for a meeting with him to discuss the matter.

We were going to begin by pointing out all the improvements we had made to the place with our own funds, what good, low-maintenance tenants we were, yada, yada, yada. Interestingly, all our Burkinabè friends told us not to do that. They all recommended that we put away the slingshot and pull out the rocket launcher! “Dear Sir: if you want us to move out, why don’t you just say so instead of putting the rent through the roof?” Haha :) Which is exactly what we did. He nearly fell over himself trying to disabuse us of this idea! However, he then proceeded to give us a whole list of reasons why he needed to raise the rent.

One of the primary reasons seems to be that the Burkina tax department finally caught up with him. They were now requiring him to pay tax on the income he received from us, something he had managed to avoid till now. He seemed to have straightened things out for the past several years in arrears, but now wanted to increase the rent to cover this year’s taxes.

We countered by pointing out that he had already raised the rent for each of the past two years. Therefore, we were not willing to pay any rent increase this year (yup, we’re playing hardball now :) In addition, unlike normal renters, we paid our yearly rent in one lump sum, giving our landlord (who is a merchant) a significant chunk of money to play with once a year. If he raised the rent, we would no longer be able to do this. We’d have to pay monthly like everyone else.

This hit a nerve! This was clearly a non-negotiable for him. He wanted that lump sum! So he agreed to keep the rent at the same level as last year. However, he now wanted us to pay the tax. In fact, he said that according to Burkina law, it was the renter’s responsibility to pay this tax. He’d only paid it for the last several years as a favour to us!

Well, this was the first we’d ever heard of this. So we said we’ve have to check it out. Guess what we discovered? Yup, you guessed it. It’s the landlord’s responsibility. Nice bluff, though.

We’re now gonna try a little bluff of our own. We pay the same rent and nothing more, and it’s fixed for the next 3 years, or we move. We’re counting on the fact that he wants that lump sum, something no other African or expatriate renter will be willing to give him.

I hope he doesn’t seriously call our bluff… cuz we’re not bluffing! It might be inconvenient, but we've got nothing to lose. We'll move!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Missed It!

We just got back from an extended weekend in the village with our visitor from Canada. And during that time, I missed a terrific opportunity to play yet another prank on our Administrative Director in Ouaga!

Late last week, a man came to the office wanting to talk with him, to “explain his situation” as the saying goes here. This is a sure sign that no matter what or how long the story is, the person is basically looking for a handout. People are very creative here! The admin director himself happened to be walking down the hall at that moment, so the receptionist cornered him. Sure enough, he passed the guy off to me again, saying that I’d look after it.

A young man came into my office (I was in effect replacing the admin director that day) and said that he was a medical student from Mali, attending the University of Ouagadougou on a grant from his country’s government. However, the money had stopped coming 8 months ago. He had managed to survive and continue his studies till now, but at this point needed two packages of printer paper to print his thesis (numerous copies, obviously). Judging by the quality of the clothes he was wearing, he was surviving pretty well, but I wasn’t about to get into all that.

Although I couldn’t extend him any help from our organization, I said that I might be able to help him on a personal level. However, since he had no proof whatsoever of what he was telling me, I told him that I needed something to verify his story. He said he would get it and left. He’s not been back (I’m not surprised).

So where did I blow my opportunity to play a prank on our esteemed admin director? Knowing I was going to be away part of next week, I should have turned the tables on him. I should have told the young man from Mali to come back on Monday, that he would receive the packages of paper at that time. I would still have been in the village and the admin director himself would have been back in the office. Touché! It wouldn’t have been as good a joke as the time a few months ago when I told him that I’d given someone (that he said I’d deal with) several thousand francs CFA out of his personal account in accordance with his instructions, but I’d have loved to see his reaction nevertheless :)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Love... Burkina Style

Just before Christmas, the wife and child of our day guard, Benjamin, left to go to the village to visit her family. From our perspective, we thought this a rather strange time to leave your husband to spend the holidays alone. But this is a different culture and they see and do things differently than we do. A few days ago, I asked him if his family was back yet. When he said no, I tongue-in-cheek suggested that maybe writing her a few love letters would entice her to come back! He laughed, whether from embarrassment or from the hilarity of such a notion, I don’t know. Writing love letters isn’t exactly a common practice in traditional African cultures!

Today he told me that she’s coming back home tomorrow. He said that he called her last night. When I asked if he’d done some sweet-talking, he simply laughed like I’d told a good joke. Haha, maybe I did! :)

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, did you hear about the lady that’s filing for divorce because she saw her husband’s avatar hugging another woman’s avatar on Second Life? Oh boy...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Where to Buy Bungee Cords & Bras in Ouaga

Have you ever gone to look for something in a store and had trouble finding it because it wasn’t where you thought it would be, or might be? It could be a piece of hardware, a housewares item, or some kind of food thing. Take salsa for instance, the mild, medium, or hot kind you eat with tortilla chips or add to Mexican dishes. You might think that logically, this product would be located in the condiments section along with stuff like relish. Not in our local grocery store in Barrie. It’s in the snack food section along with bags of potato chips, cheesies, and (you guessed it)… tortilla chips.

One time back in Canada, Kathy was looking for some Cheez Whiz. She began by looking in the first logical place she thought it would be, namely the spread section, along with products like peanut butter, jam, and mayonnaise. Not finding it there, she remembered the salsa and tortilla chip example and searched in the area of the crackers. No luck. Finally, she found it in the refrigerated section near the dairy products, which is strange because Cheez Whiz doesn’t need to be refrigerated before it’s opened.

Another example is coconut milk. Kathy needed some to make a West Indian dish. She went looking for it in the ethnic food section of the grocery store. It wasn’t there. Guess where she finally found it? In the beverage section! The logic for placing it there? Probably because it’s used as an ingredient in various drink mixes like pina coladas.

We’ve run into the same thing here in Burkina, though not so much with food items. The other day, the bungee cord we use to help keep our screen door closed gave up the ghost. So I went looking for another one. It took me forever to find one! I tried a half dozen hardware places, all the way from the basic ones in our suburbs to the more specialized places downtown. Nothing. I examined the offerings of the traveling housewares vendors with their pushcarts piled high with all sorts of useful things. Nothing. I went into the fancier Lebanese stores downtown with their imported goods. Nothing. I even sent our faithful day guard, Benjamin, out to see if he could find one. Nada.

Guess where I finally found one after weeks of looking? In a bicycle parts shop downtown. One day, I asked Desiré, my downtown friend, if he knew where I could find a bungee cord. He didn’t, but he walked around with me, asking friends and people he knew until we were finally directed to the bicycle parts shop. I guess if such an item is used in Burkina at all, it’s to tie things down on the back of a bicycle!

Bras are an entirely different matter. No, I don’t need to buy one, but bear with me here cuz it’s interesting, okay? The main source of these in Ouaga appears to completely defy any form of logic. Bras are commonly sold by young men who walk the streets of the city carrying all colours, fashions, and sizes of them over their arm! Can you imagine, as a woman, stopping one of these guys, usually on a street crowded with other pedestrian traffic, to check through their selection? African women obviously have no hang-ups about this method of procuring such inner fashions. If they did, these guys would have given up on this particular form of earning a living long ago! Maybe my friend, Desiré, can tell me the reason for this particular form of salesmanship…

Come to think of it, I could probably have saved myself a lot of time and frustration if I’d just bought a bra to use as our screen door closer! As Kathy and I and a young lady visitor from Canada were walking downtown the other day, a young man with an armload of them came up to us. Hoping to make a sale, he enthusiastically demonstrated the stretchability of the straps. It was pretty impressive! And it would have made a much more fashionable door closer than an ordinary bungee cord! :)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Western Solutions to African Problems #1

The other day I was talking with a Burkinabè friend when an American friend came up to ask him a question. He wanted to know how much it would cost to buy a male and a female goat. He was helping to support a local widow and her kids and thought that if she had a couple of goats, she could breed them and sell the offspring to help support herself. My Burkinabè friend thought for a few moments and said that 25,000 FCFA (about $60) should do it.

After the American left, the Burkinabè shook his head, leaned towards me and said, “It’ll never work.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “she lives here in the city. First of all, what’s she going to feed the goats? If she lived in a village, they could graze in the fields. But here in Ouaga, she’ll have to buy food for them. Secondly, people will steal them from her, maybe even in broad daylight. After all, she’s just a woman with a bunch of little kids. They’ll never be able to stop a couple of men who come into their courtyard and take the goats.”

“Good grief!” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell him this?”

“Because he didn’t ask for my advice as to whether his idea would work or not. He just asked me for the price of the goats. In my experience, people that don’t ask for your advice don’t appreciate getting any, especially foreigners who think they know what they’re doing here in Burkina. They just don’t take kindly to your telling them their idea won’t work.”

Hmmm… food for thought.