Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Wife Has Left Me... But I'm Going to Get Her Back!

My wife up and left me yesterday. Yup, she just got on a plane and headed back to Canada. But first she made me buy her a plane ticket, and then take her to the airport too! So today, I decided to follow her. But do you think I could get a plane ticket on short notice like she did? Not a chance. Kathy asked for one at 3 p.m. yesterday, and by 8 p.m. was on a plane. No such luck for me! The earliest I can get a flight is Thursday night, and at a significantly higher price! Are you feeling sorry for me yet?

Okay, sorry to disappoint you, but it wasn’t because of me that Kathy left. I’m not that difficult to live with! (Just a little bit...) She left due to an urgent family situation back home. Meanwhile, I’m baching it here in Ouaga, trying to get all my ducks in a row so that I can be away from my responsibilities for a week or so too.

On the way back, we’ll be on the same flight, but we didn’t purchase tickets together. So when I was buying my ticket, I asked if the ticket agent could arrange for us to sit together. She looked doubtful, so I told her how much my wife loved me and how lonely she would be if I wasn’t beside her. The agent smiled and so did the agents on either side who were pretending to work but were actually listening in on our conversation. I could see I was making progress, so I pressed on. I told her what a pretty woman my wife was and how concerned I was that some other man would try to coax her away from me if I wasn’t sitting right beside her. That did the trick :) They were still laughing when I left.

I was hoping to do a little partying on the plane, you know, try to liven things up a bit, seeing as such a long flight would no doubt be a little boring without Kathy. But I just found out that some colleagues from Burkina will be travelling on the same flight. They’ve already taken the trouble to tell me that they’ll be keeping an eye on me! How did they know what I was planning to do?!

Guess I’d better find some warm clothes to take with me. I heard it’s around 10 degrees C where I’m going in Canada. It’s 40 here in Burkina. I know I’m going to appreciate the cooler temps, but that much difference is going to be killer! And then we’re coming right back to the Burkina heat again. We must be nuts!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Street Corner Popularity

“My goodness!” exclaimed Kathy. “You’d think you were running for president!” We were stopped at a light on the Ouaga ring road and I had opened the window and was shaking hands with three or four phone card vendors that had been waving at me enthusiastically as we pulled up. These vendors can be found at every major intersection in the city, selling a variety of top-up cards for cellphones. No Rogers, Bell, or Telus plans here. Just pay-as-you-go pre-paid cards.

A number of these vendors in our section of the city are beginning to recognize me and wave energetically every time we drive by. This is partly due to the fact that we have a distinctive green Nissan pickup truck. But it’s mostly due to the fact that rather than ignoring them like everyone else does if they don’t need a phone card, I smile and wave at them.

I can’t help but admire these young men to a certain degree. Long days in the hot sun, dancing in and out of traffic, running after potential customers, and breathing all that dust and pollution... not exactly the healthiest way to earn a living!

Sometimes I stop to buy a phone card, first making sure that I will have enough time at the stoplight to do so. If it turns green in the middle of my purchase, the vehicles behind me will not be happy! As soon as I open the window, three or four guys are there, asking which card I want and in which denomination. They come anywhere from 500 francs ($1) to 10,000 francs ($20). I usually try to buy a 5,000 one. That’ll give me just over 30 minutes of local calling time (though most phone calls aren’t more than a couple of minutes in length) or up to 165 text messages (my preferred way of communicating cuz it’s so much cheaper :). Quite often, the guys already at my truck window will have a 5,000 franc card, but if they don’t they immediately begin yelling at one of their colleagues further away to bring one. The fellow comes running at top speed, the exchange is made (cash for card), and I’m off again.

At the bigger intersections, the phone card vendors aren’t the only people there. There are guys selling newspapers, tissues, candy & gum, and more. There are the inevitable Muslim beggar boys with their empty tomato can collection tins, occasionally a crippled person looking for handouts, and sometimes a woman with several small children looking for the same. A few intersections have a window washer, a young man with a pail of dirty water, a ratty looking piece of cloth, and a squeegee. When I see him coming, I turn on the windshield washer and the wipers, and smile. He smiles back, and moves on to the next vehicle. Friendliness has its limits!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Traffic Ticket - Burkina-Style

I had just dropped the Kusassi men and their baggage off at the bus station, and pulled out onto the main road to head back home when it happened. Eyes intent on the people and traffic all around me (the area around one of Ouaga’s main bus stations is an absolute zoo!), I wasn’t at all expecting the policeman who stepped out into the busy street almost directly in front of me and motioned for me to pull over. Must be a routine check, I thought. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t. To my surprise and dismay, he told me that I’d just run a red light!

I have a lot of appreciation for the men and women of Ouaga’s police force. Not only do they make an effort to bring some order to the haphazard driving habits of many of the city’s inhabitants, thus making it safer for everyone, but they also do it while standing out on hot pavement in the blazing sun for hours at a time. I’ve often wished that I had some cold drinks along with me that I could give them.

After checking my vehicle papers, which were all in order, he wrote out a quick ticket (they’re nothing like the complicated forms we have in Canada!), and told me that I needed to pay the 12,000 franc fine (about $20) at a nearby police station. In the meantime, he’d keep my vehicle registration card and I could pick it up at the police station next week. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much money on me, so I told him that I’d have to go home first to get it. I also told him that I couldn’t drive the truck without the registration card. If I was stopped again, I’d be fined again for not having that vital piece of paper!

He told me that all I had to do was show my ticket. That would be ample proof to any other policeman of why I was driving without my vehicle registration. But what about after I pay my ticket, I asked? I can’t drive around for an entire long weekend (Easter) without proper papers! He thought about that for a while. Then he told me to drop by after I’d gone home to get the money and before going on to the police station. He’d explain to me how to get my registration card back quickly.

Half an hour later, I was back. It was the policeman’s turn to look surprised. “You’re back!” he exclaimed with a big smile. “I don’t believe it!” He turned to one of his comrades standing and watching traffic nearby. “Hey, look who’s back!” he called out. The other policeman came walking over to shake my hand. “This is a real straight guy,” said my policeman. “Nobody ever comes back like this! Where are you from?” We ended up talking for several minutes, exchanging information about where we were from and what we did for a living.

Then, taking me by the arm, he led me towards my truck, saying that we could easily get this ticket business straightened out. Motioning me to get in, he went around to the passenger side, opened the door, placed my vehicle registration card on the passenger seat, and took the ticket that was there. I looked at him with puzzlement. “So what should I do now?” I asked. “Just go,” he replied. “Well, what about my ticket?” I queried. “It no longer exists,” he said. “You don’t need to do that,” I continued. “I ran a red light and I’ll go and pay the ticket.” “It’s okay,” he said. “We know you’re a stranger here and we can make allowances so that you won’t think Burkinabè aren’t a friendly and welcoming people.” I laughed. “There’s no danger of that,” I said. “Burkinabè have the reputation of being the friendliest people in all of West Africa!”

All of a sudden, an idea popped into my head. “Hey, how many of you are there here watching traffic?” He told me there were six of them. “I’ll be right back,” I said, driving off. Just a bit down the road, I’d seen a gas station. Pulling up there, I went in and bought six cans of ice cold Coke... You should have seen the smiles on their faces!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Five Guys and a Truck

It was 9 o’clock at night by the time we pulled back into Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second-largest city. It had already been a long day, especially for the Kusassi men who’d gotten up at 4 a.m. to catch the first bus to leave Zabre for Ouaga. After running some errands there, we’d left the capital at noon, the four Kusassi men and I, to travel to the town of Toussian, a five-hour drive from Ouaga and 55 kms past Bobo. The Kusassi men were friends and members of the Kusassi association, an organization that was formed to develop and promote the use of the Kusaal language through linguistics, literacy, and translation work. They had learned that a similar association already existed among the Toussian people of southwest Burkina, and had asked me to accompany them there on a fact-finding trip.

Following the meeting, they decided that we should head back to Bobo and find a place for the night. There was nothing available in Toussian. So here we were. We stopped at a gas station to ask if there were any places to stay nearby. By the responses we got, I decided that city people are much the same, whether in Toronto or Ouaga or Bobo. Most don’t know their own city very well at all! We drove on, keeping our eyes peeled.

After half an hour of driving, we’d not found anything. So at the next stoplight, one of the guys rolled down his window and asked the woman sitting on a moto beside us if she knew of a place we could stay. She directed us down a nearby street, and a few minutes later, we pulled up in front of a small hotel. Two of the Kusassi guys went in to check it out. A few seconds later, they were back. “They want 5,000 francs (about $9) for a room,” they said. “That’s too much.”

A man nearby overheard them and said that he could take us to someplace cheaper. Crowding into the back seat, he led us several kilometres to the outskirts of Bobo where we found a Catholic mission guesthouse. The guys all jumped out to have a look. Several minutes later, they were back. “The rooms are too hot and not very clean,” they said. “Let’s go back to the other place.” So we headed back. But by the time we got there, the rooms were gone.

By now, it was almost 11 p.m. “Listen,” I said, “let’s get something to eat first, and then we’ll look again. It’s late, we’re tired, and we’ll all feel a lot better if we had some supper.” They agreed, so we pulled off into a nearby side street that boasted several outdoor eating areas. It just wasn’t our night. The first served only grilled meat and drinks, no rice or sauce. The second served only drinks. We saw a place further up the street where people appeared to be buying rice and sauce, so headed there. But as we got closer, we could see that it wasn’t very clean, not attractive at all. The Kusassi guys turned up their noses. They might be from the village, but they had some standards!

Turning to leave, I spotted another place just a little further on and went to check it out. This was it! They had nice tables and chairs, and served food and drink out of a proper kitchen. There was even a big-screen TV playing a Season 3 episode of “24” in French! How much better could it get? We sat down, relieved to finally have found a decent place to eat. But before the waiter could come, two of the Kusassi guys jumped up and took off, saying they’d be right back.

Half an hour later, having already finished the cold drinks we’d ordered to begin with, we were still waiting for them! I was just about to call them on my cellphone when they came walking up to our table. “We found a place to stay!” they announced. “It’s a little more expensive than we’d hoped, but it’s decent and clean.” “And,” they continued, looking at me with big smiles on their faces, “we even got a room with air conditioning for you!” I laughed, saying that I would be fine in an ordinary room like theirs, but they insisted that I needed a room with A/C. Well, at this point, I wasn’t going to argue.

Our waiter turned out to be more interested in watching “24” than in serving his customers. It seemed to take forever to get our meals. Several of the Kusassi guys were already asleep in their chairs by the time the food came. It was after midnight when we finally got to the guesthouse they’d found.

Once there, I said goodnight to the guys, took a quick shower to rinse off the sweat and grime of the day, and dropped into bed like a sack of oats. But not before reaching over and pushing the power button on the A/C remote laying on the night table nearby. It was pretty warm in the room. Besides, I was only going to get about six hours of sleep. They might as well be comfortable ones!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just Another Sunday Afternoon in Burkina

On my way home from a little store near our place recently, I spotted a little place that offered cold drinks. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had gone out to the store both to pick up some items and to get some much-needed exercise. When a proportionately large amount of your time is spent as a desk or keyboard jockey, you start looking for any excuse you can to keep your other muscles in as good a shape as your fingers!

The cold drink place consisted of a small cement block building with a tin roof and a wood-pole and straw-thatch hangar out front under which patrons could sit in the shade. The building contained the stock, consisting of numerous cases of various kinds of bottled drinks, as well as a refrigerator/freezer to get and keep them cold. Under the hangar were placed a few rough, locally fabricated tables and plastic chairs.

Selecting an empty chair, I sat down, glad to be out of the sun. Ordering a cold drink, I looked around at the other people there. There weren’t many. Two men sat nearby drinking beer and eating from a plateful of grilled meat that they had gotten from somewhere nearby. A teenage girl and a twenty-something lady (who turned out to be the owner) sat at the other end of my table, carrying on a conversation with the two men in the local language, Mooré.

As we sat there, various kinds of ambulant vendors dropped by, hoping to make a sale and offering everything from phone cards and sunglasses to shirts, shoes, and kitchenware. Everyone waved them on, not interested. Then came a lady with a large plastic bag which she put down and opened. Out came a selection of women’s clothing, neatly folded in plastic packaging: dresses, skirts, blouses, underwear, and bras. The two ladies sitting near me took each article to inspect and check on themselves for size. The owner placed the bra over her chest and nodded. It seemed to fit, so she asked the price. But upon hearing it, she shook her head and handed it back.

After the vendor left, she informed me that at 3,000 francs (about $6), the bra was far too expensive. Normally, she said, she paid 500-600 francs for bras that were a lot prettier and more adjustable than that one, and went on about how uncomfortable it would probably be. Besides, for 3,000 francs she could buy enough material to make a whole dress! Nope, that bra just wasn’t worth it.

A few minutes later, I finished my drink, paid, and headed home thinking, “Only in Burkina!”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lunch with Aristide

I drove downtown the other day to meet my friend, Aristide. He’d called me on the weekend to say that he had a favour to ask of me. Normally when I drop by to see him downtown at PhotoLuxe, his family business, we go just around the corner to a place where we can buy a cold drink and talk in relative peace and quiet. This time, however, this place was closed, so we drove to a place he knew near the airport, about 5 minutes away, called “Cantine de l’Aéroport”.

Like many spots where people go to get drinks and food of various kinds, this was an outdoor place. I parked the truck and we went and grabbed a table and couple of chairs in one of the several gazebo-type structures there. They consist of a raised concrete floor and a low cement wall on which are several concrete pillars to hold up a round roof frame with clay tiles for covering. The table and chairs are local fabrications of painted metal and each wobbled to some degree, whether due to an unevenness in the floor or some warping of the metal they were made of, I don’t know.

After ordering cold drinks, we walked over to where some fellows were busy grilling various kinds of meat on a large piece of wire mesh sitting on low cement sides. Fed by a wood fire underneath, the roasting meat gave off a delectable aroma, mixed with the smell of wood smoke. Aristide ordered something in Mooré (the local language) and we went to sit back down.

Pretty soon our drinks arrived and they were ice cold. Never was a drink more welcome! Although it wasn’t even noon yet, it was already a hot day and we were plenty thirsty. With the drinks came the bill. In most such places, those serving the food and those serving the drinks represent different businesses and must be paid separately.

Then came the food, a plate of meat & onions, cut into small pieces, with a local spice mix on the side. One kind of meat I recognized as beef. The other I didn’t. Aristide told me with grin that it was stomach. He speared a piece with a toothpick (also provided), dipped it liberally in the spice mix, and popped it in his mouth. Selecting a small piece, I did the same. Ugh! It was like chewing on a piece of soft rubber! I much preferred the regular beef, but tried to eat my fair share of the other too, something I could only manage by concentrating with unusual intensity on our conversation and not thinking about what I was eating at all. Even so, I ended up swallowing most of those pieces whole. You could chew on them forever without ever getting anywhere! I sure was glad for the regular beef, onions, and spice. They were delicious.

And the favour he asked me? If I could lend a friend of his $30 to help him start a small business. He actually needed $50, but Aristide was kicking in the remaining $20. And how did I respond? Well, unlike in Canada or the US, friendship in Burkina includes a certain access to each other’s resources, including money, so I forked it over. I know I’ll get it back, but that’s not the point. It strengthened our friendship, and who knows when I’ll need a favour that only Aristide can provide?

Friday, April 3, 2009

April Fool's in Burkina Faso

Do we play April Fool’s jokes in Burkina? Sure we do! Not just us expatriates either, but the Burkinabè themselves. For instance, on the front page of one of Burkina’s newspapers on the morning of April 1 was a headline that said (translated into English): Blaise Compaoré Visits Mrs. Sankara. Mr. Compaoré is the current president of Burkina Faso. Mrs. Sankara is the widow of the former president killed in the coup d’état that brought the current one into power. However, when you turn to the page referred to by the headline, you’re greeting with a big picture of a fish! April Fool’s! (April Fool’s is called “Poisson d’Avril” or April Fish in French, thus the picture of a fish).

Okay, maybe that wasn’t so funny, so let me tell you a few of the tricks that were pulled on our Centre here in Ouaga.

One of my colleagues, Mary, is writing a thesis based on her work as an ethnomusicologist. She’s been working on it for months, resulting in a document many pages long. On the last day of March, she had our computer services person, Mariam, install a new printer driver for her. Then on the morning of April 1, Mary called Mariam to her office, frantic over the fact that her thesis seemed to have disappeared. When Mariam arrived, Mary showed her the thesis document. It consisted of page after blank page.

“This happened since you put that new printer driver on my computer,” cried Mary. “What did you do?”

Mariam was practically beside herself with worry, scrolling down through the document, desperately looking for any remnant of the former thesis. When she came to the last page, guess what she found? A big picture of a fish! April Fool’s! Mary had set the whole thing up, creating a blank document and giving it the same name as her thesis.

In another case, a colleague stopped to talk to one of our night guards who had just come on duty. “Have you gone to see Adama yet?” (Adama is our administrative services director and in charge of employees). “No, why?” asked the employee. “I don’t know,” said my colleague. “I just heard that he’s looking for you.”

On his way by a little while later, my colleague asked him again, but this time added that he’d heard something about someone taking a picture of the guard doing something... The guard began to look worried.

At this point, Adama, who was in on the joke, called the guard into his office, spoke with him briefly, and handed him an envelope which he said appeared to contain a photo of some kind. Nervously, the guard opened the enveloped and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Opening it slowly, he stared at it. Guess what it was? Yup, a picture of a big fish! April Fool’s! Whew! You should have seen the look of relief on his face!