Friday, March 27, 2009

Burkina Has Talent #1

A couple of months ago, one of our visitors, Denise, suggested that I start a website called “Burkina Has Talent”, based, of course, on the well-known TV show, “America Has Talent”. I had been talking about how innovative and creative the Burkinabè people could be in making ends meets and earning a living. This takes a variety of forms, anything from recycling trash to new uses for ordinary things to creative story-telling designed to pull at the heart-strings and wheedle a few hundred or thousand francs out of the listener’s wallet :)

However, rather than starting a new blog or website (I barely have time to keep this one up as much as I’d like!), I’ve decided to incorporate it into this one. So every now and then, when I run into something interesting, I’ll feature it here under the heading “Burkina Has Talent”.

Today, I’ll start out with something simple. The Burkinabè have come up with 101 uses for strips of rubber that they cut from the old inner tubes of bicycle tires. Here’s one such use: Don’t have the proper end to join a length of rubber hose to an outside faucent? No problem. It’s nothing a strip of rubber can’t fix!

Stay tuned for more creative ideas from the land of upright men!

By the way, remember my problem with the water company here? The $200 bill I recently received? Well, my Burkinabè colleague and his friend were able to get this reduced to about $45. This might sound like it’s still a little high, and it might be, but it does cover several months, including a serious underpayment in November (when we paid about $2 for a month’s use of water). In any case, it won’t be worth the time and energy I’ll have to spend to get it much lower. The law of diminishing returns and all that stuff. But you can bet I’ll be watching the water meter and the monthly bill with significantly more attention from now on!

Monday, March 23, 2009

If It Doesn't Work Here, Let's Try It In Africa!

Friends of ours from Canada recently spent a few weeks working at an orphanage near Ouagadougou, and thought they’d drop by to spend a few days with us too since they were already in the neighbourhood. To our great surprise, they actually had some questions about what they saw and did, and we ended up having some interesting discussions together.

In our experience, most people don’t ask questions about stuff like this. Trips for short-term teams to go and work at orphanages in Africa appear to be becoming increasingly popular, especially for church groups from North America. Toting duffel bags full of clothes, school supplies, toys, tools, and construction materials, these groups arrive ready to help build facilities and entertain the kids. Because it involves children, most people just assume this is a worthwhile cause and do what they can to help. Very few do any critical thinking and ask questions, especially the bigger questions, about what`s really going on.

Think about this for a moment: Do we have any orphanages in North America? I can’t speak for the USA, but I can’t think of any in Canada, and neither can anyone to whom I’ve posed the question. We used to have orphanages, but not anymore. Why not? Because we’ve discovered that they don’t work. Children, even orphans, do best when they are raised in families. So that’s what we do now, arrange to put orphans in families asap, even if it means placing then in a temporary one or two before they can find a permanent adoptive family.

So why are we helping to set up and fund orphanages here in Africa? What makes us think that they’ll work here any better than they did in Canada?

In addition, many of the westerners helping to fund and/or build orphanages haven’t done their cultural homework. They don’t realize that children in Africa are not just the responsibility of the nuclear family as they are in the West. Here, unlike in North America, there is usually (except perhaps in areas of genocide) a large extended family that is ready to take care of children that have lost their parents.

So who are these orphanages really for? Well, there are a few legitimate orphans, children who have lost both parents. However, many still have at least one parent, and not a few actually still have both parents living. So what are they doing at the orphanage? Getting free food, clothing, housing, and education. Why should their families, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet, pay for these things when someone else is willing to do it for them?

Furthermore, villagers are sometimes even encouraged to send their children to an orphanage. For a few enterprising Burkinabès, an orphanage is a guaranteed income-generating project. The children are a great way for those running the orphanages to get access to generous foreign donors and their funds. The more children they can get to come to the orphanage, the more funding and help they`re likely to get from overseas donors. Care for the children is not their prime motivating factor. Access to funds and the possibility of the good life is. But I don`t necessarily have a problem with that. How many of us would be doing what we did if we didn`t get paid for it? Finances can be a wonderful motivating factor! :)

No, my problem is not with the motivation of those running the orphanages. It’s with the whole concept of orphanages. Where are these children going to learn their cultural values and norms? Where are they going to learn about family life and parenting for when they grow up? Certainly not in a dorm with 200 other kids! Orphanages didn’t work in Canada and they won’t work here either. I’ve yet to hear of any effort to place any of the children in these orphanages with adoptive families. After all, who in their right mind would send away the geese that lay the golden eggs!

Interestingly, there is one mission organization we’re aware of that hasn’t gotten on the orphanage bandwagon. In fact, they refuse to provide any help or funding for orphanages, saying that this is not an indigenous African way of dealing with orphans. The extended family is, and this mission is committed to helping those families look after the orphans that come into their care. It’s more complicated to do it this way, and there’s significantly less opportunity for short-term teams to come and help than in building artificial enclaves for large groups of children together in one place. But personally, for the children’s sake, I think they`re on the right track.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fun With the Water Company

The other day we got the shock of our life when we received our monthly water bill here in Ouagadougou. Normally we pay between 3,000 – 6,000 FCFA (about $6-$12). But this time, our bill was for 90,000 FCFA (nearly $200)!!!

Checking past bills, I noted that the number for the water meter reading had not changed since July of last year! However, each month, we were charged for a reasonable amount of water. Where they got that number from, I don't know, unless it was based on past usage patterns. However, just to be sure, I checked with our neighbours to make sure they didn’t have a hidden swimming pool in their part of the house somewhere… and then I questioned our guards to determine if they had a little business of selling water to neighbours on the side… Nope.

Finally, I decided to go and have a look at the water meter itself. Imagine my surprise to discover that it was quite impossible to read! There was so much condensation on the inside of the glass that the numbers on the counter could not be seen enough to even guess at what they might be. Which might explain why the meter reading number never changed for the past 6 months, right?

Then, suddenly, on our most recent bill, the number did change… significantly enough to put our water usage rate into the highest category (which is 10 times higher than the normal rate we pay). They must have pulled this number out of the air because there was no way they could read the meter.

I mentioned this to a Burkinabè colleague at work. To my surprise, he immediately pulled out his water bill to show me that he, who receives a monthly income of under $100, had just been billed for nearly $375! I soon discovered that the national water utility was doing this all over the city. And of course, people were going in to complain. Which is exactly what my colleague did. I waited to see what would happen with him before lodging my own complaint.

His bill was cut down to about $70, payable in four easy instalments. But no justification was given for this amount (It sounds like a creative income-generating project to me! Charge an absurd amount, and then cut it down significantly when people come in to complain. Most will probably be so relieved and thankful that they’ll willing pay the reduced amount :) So he decided to call a friend of his who worked at the utility and told him about both our cases (everything works on relationships here in Burkina) His friend said he could help us get this straightened out properly. My colleague is down at the utility with him this morning. I’ll let you know what happens :P

Friday, March 6, 2009

Another Western Solution for an African Problem

A few months ago, I learned that the wife of a Burkinabè friend had fallen ill with malaria, a common and sometimes fatal disease here in beautiful Burkina Faso. So when I saw him next, I naturally inquired after her health. Thank goodness, she was better after having received emergency treatment for her condition. I asked if they use a mosquito net over their bed at night. He said that they do. “Hmmm…” I said, “So how did your wife manage to get malaria?” He looked at me like I was considerably less intelligent than I looked. “Because mosquitoes bite at other times too!” he replied.

Judging from what I’m reading in magazines and seeing here in Burkina, mosquito nets impregnated with insecticide are being lauded as the latest solution to the age-old problem of malaria in Africa. In a recent article in a magazine specializing in African affairs, they were called “the only effective solution”. Everyone seems to be getting on the bandwagon. Charitable organizations are importing and distributing them by the thousands in Burkina alone. Which probably explains why I see some being sold along the streets and roads of Ouaga, each with a “Not for Resale” notice on the package!

As with other western solutions to African problems, this one appears to be at least partly based on assumptions that may or may not be true in places like Burkina Faso. It assumes that people basically sleep in beds in rooms in houses (or some kind of house-like building) similar to the way we do in North America. After all, the mosquito nets have to be attached to something to be hung up. However, in Burkina, especially in the villages, many people (primarily children, but some adults too) sleep on simple mats on the ground, quite often outside in an open courtyard. There is nothing to which to tie the mosquito nets.

There also appears to be the assumption that mosquitoes are primarily a problem at night. Even if that were true, it must be realized that darkness falls at 6 p.m. in Burkina. People haven’t even eaten supper by that time, and it will a long while yet before they go to bed. Ample opportunity for mosquitoes to do their dirty work. The truth is that mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn when people are either outside in their courtyards socializing at the end of a day’s work, or up and out, preparing for a new day.

And finally, there appears to be the assumption that given the option, people will welcome the mosquito nets as lifesavers and make every effort to use them. In reality, the nets are often seen as a nuisance that make an already uncomfortable situation even worse. Due to their fine mesh, they greatly reduce the airflow of even the smallest, welcome, nighttime breeze, adding significantly to the discomfort of already hot, humid nights.

Does this mean that all is lost? Not at all! Mosquito nets are great for keeping annoying flies and other biting insects off sheep, goats, and cattle. This enables the animals to grow bigger and fatter since they don’t expend so much energy twitching and running around to rid themselves of the pesky beasts. They also make great veils and fashion accessories for bridal outfits, not only enabling even poor brides to have a lovelier dress, but also creating additional work and income for local tailors.

And finally, communities around Lake Victoria have discovered that mosquito nets are cheaper and more effective for catching and drying the fish that constitute their livelihood. The extra fine mesh of the nets enables fishermen to catch even the smallest fish in the lake (the fact that this eliminates their breeding stock for tomorrow is not a concern for people whose main aim is to eat today). An added benefit is that torn nets are freely replaced by the donor agency (which still believes people are using them for mosquito protection).

As for the actual problem of malaria, insecticide impregnated mosquito nets are, at best, only a partial solution, provided people use them for that purpose at all. Like my Burkinabè friend astutely observed, malaria-carrying mosquitoes don’t wait for you to get under your net at night before they consider you fair game for their draculan attentions. And it only takes one bite…

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Visitors and Kusassi Association Update

I found myself in a bit of a pickle this weekend. We had visitors from Canada coming to stay with us for a few days, and the Kusassi Association asked me to come to a meeting in the village on Saturday. I didn’t want to leave Kathy to entertain our guests all alone for the entire weekend, yet I didn’t feel that I could stay to help her and miss the meeting in the village either. Especially since they were going to discuss the issue of whether or not the Association was going to take charge of their own language development and translation work, or whether they were going to submit to the demands of the national Bible translation organization to run the project.

So I decided on the bold move of asking our visitors to accompany me to the village! That way, Kathy would not be overloaded on her own, and our visitors could have a first-hand look at the Kusassi Association and what it was trying to do.

Well, the husband decided to accept my offer, while the wife elected to stay in Ouaga. Probably a good thing since she’s an active person and our time in the village consisted of lots of sitting and listening to other people talk in languages we didn’t always understand! But it was worth it. My visitor not only got to see the Kusassi Association and leaders in action, but he got to experience village living too. He told me that he was experiencing a lot of “firsts” on this trip, like sitting in a village compound outside under the stars and eating tô and sauce for supper.

And what did the Kusassi Association decide? Well, that was interesting. One person on the leadership team was all for allowing the national translation organization to run the whole project (I’m sure the fact that they’d already offered him the job of leader and a big salary had absolutely no influence on his perspective :) The rest of the team preferred to stick to their guns and run the project themselves. After several hours of explanation and discussion, the association members told the leaders that since they had been chosen to lead the association, it was up to them to make the final decision. The members would back whatever the leaders decided. Wow! Not at all the response I’d expected. But a wise course of action, if you ask me.