Friday, July 31, 2009


It’s Friday, the last day of July. Payday for our employees here in Ouaga: a day guard, a night guard, and a houselady. You’re probably thinking it must be nice to be rich, eh? Well, compared to the average Burkinabè, we ARE rich! Believe me, being regarded as millionaires wasn’t something we were prepared for and it takes some getting used to!

In reality, we aren’t millionaires, even by Burkina standards. But just the fact that we’ve been able to fly here from a far-away country, drive a pickup truck, and live in a house with running water and other nice stuff marks us as wealthy. And it’s for that reason that we need guards in our courtyard. Otherwise we’d be targets for thieves.

In fact, every courtyard is a potential target for thieves. Even poor people can have their meagre belongings stolen. Like our day guard. He used to work a couple of nights too. But one evening, thieves broke in on his wife and little daughter and stole the family cell phone and other valuables. Scared the daylights out of them too! Since then, he doesn’t work nights anymore.

However, since most Burkinabè live in courtyards with numerous other family members, there is nearly always a number of people home to discourage common thievery. In our case, we’re usually both gone, leaving no one at home. Thus the guards. They wouldn’t stop a determined intruder (like one armed with a gun), but they discourage the common kind.

There’s another couple of reasons we have employees, including a houselady who washes dishes, cleans house, and does the laundry. One is that all this would take a lot of our time, more so than it does in Canada because of the extra steps involved in dishwashing and the extra dust and dirt we have in Burkina. The other is that we’d be seen as extremely selfish and stingy if we didn’t hire people to do these things for us. No kidding!

Why? Because we obviously have money (we’re rich, remember?) and can thus afford to hire people. And we have work that even poor Burkinabè people can do to earn some money to feed and take care of their families. Doing this kind of work ourselves would be seen as keeping food from needy people. How’s that for some good logic?

Well, by North American standards, these three employees don’t cost that much (we actually split the guards’ salaries with our neighbours who live in the same courtyard in the other half of the duplex). And neither Kathy nor I mind not having to do the dishes, the cleaning, and the washing. But boy, it’s gonna be tough when we go back to Canada…

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Break From Ouaga

This past weekend, I went down to the village to touch base with Pastor Emmanuel and some of the other Kusassi folks. It’s been months since I’ve last been and I must confess that I miss both the village and my friends there. In this case, it’s certainly true that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

I left Ouaga after lunch on Friday, about an hour later than I’d planned. I wanted to get to Zabré before dark (night falls between 6-7 p.m. here in Burkina all year round) but now had my doubts. The road from Manga to Zabré had already been in bad condition the last time I travelled it. Back then, potholes and washboards had me grinding along in first and second gears for much of the distance, turning a normally one-and-a-half hour drive through the Burkina countryside into a 3-hour cross-country marathon. Now that we were in the rainy season, I fully expected it to be in even worse shape!

To my surprise, the road had actually been graded recently! I’ve never heard of this being done during the rainy season! So after picking up a Kusassi friend in Manga, we managed to get to Zabré well before dark.

It was great to sit in Pastor Emmanuel’s courtyard again, talk, and eat rice and sauce for supper. Yeah, it gets monotonous if you have to eat it all the time, but otherwise it tastes really good! Maybe it’s the slightly smoky flavour from the open fire :) Of course, I couldn’t finish all they piled on my plate. But then again, I’m not out doing fieldwork all day like they are.

It turned out to be a LOT cooler in the village than it was in Ouaga. Especially the following day when Kathy texted me and told me the power was out at our place again.

When I got back to Ouaga on Saturday evening, the power still wasn’t back on and I knew we’d never be able to sleep with the heat and humidity. So I called our Centre manager and asked if there were any guest rooms with A/C still available. Fortunately there was, so we packed up a few things and headed over there, prepared to spend the night. Fifteen minutes later, our guard calls me to say that the power is back on at home. Go figure.

Well, there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed, is there?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Culinary Disappointment

Now that we have cooler weather in Burkina, Kathy’s felt more like cooking our meals at home and we haven’t been going out to eat very much at all. To be honest, we were getting heartily sick of restaurant food anyway. Variety is pretty limited here. Apart from a few Asian restaurants, most of the restaurants in Ouaga offer much the same fare. So when we do go out for a meal nowadays, we’re always on the lookout for something different.

Of course, there are absolutely no brand name restaurants here. No McDonald’s, Harvey’s, or Burger King. No Subway, Swiss Chalet, Pizza Pizza, Kelseys, or Montana’s either. Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a brand name business of any kind here! No Wal-Mart, no Home Depot, no HMV, no Blockbuster, and no Rogers. No Starbucks either :/ Now that’s gotta be worth some hardship pay, don’t you think?

Anyway, last Saturday, when we were driving around in Ouaga 2000, the ritzier part of town, we saw a sign for a Thai restaurant! To say that we were excited would be an understatement! Checking out the business hours on the sign, we decided to cancel the supper we’d planned at home and go out for a date instead.

We got showered. We got dressed up. And we waited until a fashionably late hour (it’s the French influence :) before heading out. Almost drooling with anticipation at our upcoming gastronomic adventure, we pulled up in front of the restaurant. Strange... our truck seemed to be the only vehicle there. We got out and walked up to the gate.

After a few seconds, a uniformed guard opened the gate. “Sorry,” he said. “The restaurant is closed for the month of July.” “Well,” I replied with genuine disappointment and reproach in my voice, “couldn’t you at least have put up a sign letting people know that?” He just shrugged his shoulders and closed the gate. Obviously not his problem!

So much for our gastronomic adventure with spicy food and exotic flavours. We had to settle for a nearby Italian restaurant. Pasta is good, but it ain’t Thai food!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Burkina Has Talent #2

I ran into a really creative financing idea this week! A Kusassi friend of mine who is a student at the University of Ouagadougou came to tell me about it. There is an association in Ouaga that will give students grants of 100,000 francs (about $250) per month for a two-year period. How does one qualify for such a grant? It’s easy.

First, you register. This costs 70,000 francs (just under $200). And where do you get this kind of money since the reason you’re applying for a grant in the first place is because you don’t have any? Once again, this part is easy. You find someone who is already registered to pay for you. Why would they do that? Because that’s a condition for keeping their name on the list of people in line for the grant. They have to get another person signed up to get a grant within 45 days of being registered themselves. If they don’t, their name gets dropped off the list and they have to start all over again.

So once you are registered by having a previous applicant pay the fee for you, your name gets put on the list of people in line for a grant. However, to keep your place on the list, you have 45 days to find someone else to register for a grant, and you have to pay the 70,000 francs to register them. Where will you get that kind of money? This is the only really tough part. Basically, you get it wherever you can! Beg, borrow, or steal it. Why would you make such an effort? Because in about six months, you will begin receiving grant money and can pay back the money to whoever you begged, borrowed, or stole it from!

As long as you can pay to register someone else, your place on the list of those in line for a grant is safe. And if the person you registered fails to register someone else? You’re still safe, because it’s their name that is dropped from the list, not yours. And the association keeps the money you paid to have them registered. Either way, whether someone stays on the list or not, the association gets the money paid to put them there. This means that they have a steady source of income, but don’t have to end up giving grants to everyone that registers because not everyone will manage to stay on the list. However, the association will have to prime the pump from time to time as people fall off the list because they failed to register someone else in time.

I thought this was creative for several reasons. First, there’s a huge potential market: poor students looking for money. Secondly, the association uses the clients who are applying for a grant to recruit other clients. In other words, the students do virtually all the work of recruiting more applicants. Thirdly, the association uses its clients (the students) to generate a continual flow of grant money by making them pay a hefty fee for someone else to register. And fourthly, students do this willingly because they know that they will eventually get their 70,000 franc fee back when they begin receiving their monthly grant payments. Don’t you think that’s creative financing?

Now guess why my Kusassi friend came to tell me about this? :P

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Watching For Trouble

The rains over the last couple of days have made a real mess of the dirt roads in our neighbourhood, limiting the ways we can take from our house to the centre. After siesta yesterday, Kathy & I were driving down one of those roads, on our way back to work. I kind of like seeing how people in the different neighbourhoods live. Life is lived outside much more here than it is in Canada. People can mostly be found in the streets outside their homes, playing, working at something, talking with friends, or watching the world go by.

However, I always keep my eyes peeled for potential trouble. It’s usually the kids, especially if they’re in groups, kicking a ball, carrying a stick or piece of wire, or picking up stones. It’s like they dare each other to do something stupid, like scoring a groove in your paintwork, putting a ding in your door, or breaking a window. But even if it’s as simple a thing as running over to touch the vehicle or run their fingers along the sides of the truck as we go past, all it takes is one slip and they can easily be under the wheels before we can stop.

Part way down the road we were on yesterday, there was a group of young teenage boys kicking a soccer ball around. I could smell trouble before we even got to them, but it was too late to turn around. I slowed as I began to pass them, making eye contact with the fellow who had the ball, hoping to let him know that I was watching him, that he couldn’t sneak in a quick kick and then claim it was an accident.

To my surprise, while looking right back at me, he lined up a shot and deliberately kicked the ball right into my driver’s door with a resounding BANG! I slammed on the brakes and jumped out. He took off running. No sense making an idiot of myself by trying to catch him, so I grabbed the ball and went to talk to several women standing nearby who had seen the whole thing. “You’re in luck,” said one of them, “There’s his older brother coming down the street right now.”

When the older brother arrived where I was waiting, I explained what had happened. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ll look after this. Is there any damage to your truck?” Looking at the door together, we determined there wasn’t, so I gave him the ball, and Kathy & I drove off.

Back at the centre, I told my story to a Burkinabè friend and asked what the next step should be. Should I follow up on the affair? “No,” he replied, “they will indeed take care of it. The boy will regret that he ever even thought of doing such a thing.” He went on, “The boy is lucky that you are a foreigner. If he’d done that to a Burkinabè, they’d have gotten out of the car and given him a beating right there!”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Paying For Your Education

I had to work hard at it, but I finally managed to do it! After several failed attempts, I finally managed to get a traffic ticket that I actually had to pay! Guess what I got a ticket for? Naw, you’ll never guess, so I’ll tell you: for texting on my cellphone while driving! Did you know that was illegal in Burkina? I didn’t. But I do now :) Like I’ve always said: you’ve got to pay for your education.

I had just gone to visit my friend, Aristide, who’d had an operation on his foot following a motorcycle accident. Unfortunately, when Desiré and I had arrived at the little clinic to see him, it wasn’t visiting hours. However, the nurse on duty kindly agreed to let us see him for a few minutes. Now I was on my way home again and letting Kathy know that I was coming.

Suddenly, I heard a horn beeping beside my truck. Looking up, I saw two policemen on a motorcycle. One of them was pointing at me and waving over to the side of the road. Although I had no clue why I was being pulled over, I obediently moved onto the shoulder and stopped. That’s when I was enlightened about this rule of the road.

Well, I couldn’t argue with the man. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, right? He kept my vehicle registration card, and I drove off with a ticket worth 12,000 francs (about $30), which I would have to pay at the municipal police station the next day before I could get my card back.

Whew! For a while there, I was afraid that I was leading a charmed life! :)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ouagadougou International Airport

After airports like Toronto’s Pearson International, London’s Heathrow, and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, arriving at the airport in Ouagadougou is a unique experience. After descending from the plane onto the tarmac, we waited until buses arrived to take us to the terminal only a few hundred yards away. Once there, we crammed into the arrival room like a herd of cattle in a pen. The only way forward was through a narrow bottleneck manned by a lone inspector who checked at our vaccination booklets to make sure we had our yellow fever shot, an obligatory condition for getting into many West African countries. No line-up for this. People just kept pushing forward and sticking their booklets over shoulders, under armpits, around heads, and under the man’s nose until he took them, checked them, and handed them back.

Once past this man, there were two men who checked our passports to make sure we had valid visas. From there, we were directed towards one of four people in little booths who verified the information we’d written on our entry cards and, if all was in order, gave us an entry stamp in our passport.

Then it was out into the baggage retrieval area, where a veritable sea of people stood several deep around the conveyor belt loaded with an assortment of suitcases, bags, boxes, and bundles. Individuals darted in and out retrieving their belongings from the moving belt as they went by, with baggage carriers loading them on trolleys or hoisting them on shoulders to carry outside for their clients. My bags took quite a while to show up, so the baggage carrier I’d enlisted ran off to serve several other clients before finally coming back to me. Busy guy! It’s amazing how much these guys can carry or load on a trolley! I guess since their livelihood depends on maximum effort in minimum time, they go all out when they can.

The last step before getting out of the airport is the customs check. Normally the baggage carriers are able to help you get through this last leg fairly quickly. But the lady glancing at my bags was curious. She made me open one up. It happened to have an ice cream maker in it that I was bringing back for our centre kitchen, a gleaming new stainless steel machine still in the plastic wrapping. “Ooooh!” she exclaimed. “And how much is this machine worth?” I couldn’t lie: “About 200 Euros,” I said. “Well, that’s going to cost you a bit in customs fees,” she replied as she turned to call over her superior.

When he arrived, he asked what the machine was and I told him. Thinking to inject some humour into the situation, I explained (with appropriate animation) how hot it was in Burkina for us expatriates and how much we craved some nice cold ice cream to help cool us down. As a matter of fact, we could invite him to come and join us in tasting our first batch! By this time, both he and the lady were chuckling. “Go on, then,” said the man, waving me through.

As I said goodbye to the lady, she said, “It wouldn’t be amiss to give us a little something for letting you off so easily.” I had to agree that they had indeed let me off easy. “No problem,” I replied. “I’ll get something to you.”

Once outside, Kathy was waiting for me. The baggage carrier aggressively pushed his loaded trolley through the crowd, clearing the way for Kathy & I to get through. It would have taken us twice as long by ourselves. “They’re going to want at least 25,000 francs,” he said once we’d reached our truck at the far end of the parking lot and he’d loaded our bags in the back. This is about $60, and we didn’t have that much. “Well, 15,000 then,” he continued. This was still more than we had. Kathy pulled out a 5,000 bill. “Not enough,” said the baggage carrier. Kathy scrounged around and found a few more small bills, making a total of 8,000 francs. “I guess that’ll have to do,” he said, and hurried off back to the airport, no doubt hoping to snag another client or two.

Afterwards, I told my story to a trusted Burkinabè friend in administration and asked him what I should have done. “You did exactly the right thing,” he said. “If they had kept the machine, it would have taken us weeks to get it out of customs, and very likely there would have been a few pieces missing. They just don’t have a good place to store stuff like that securely at the airport.”

“What about the 8,000 francs that I gave them?” I asked. “Nothing wrong with that,” said my friend. “You didn’t try to bribe them to do something they shouldn’t have done. They had already let you go, which they didn’t have to do, and you were showing your appreciation. It’s like giving someone a tip. And in this case, it was well worth it!”

Friday, July 3, 2009

Credit Card Blues

Had a free day today, so I decided to take a bus into the nearest big town, a place called High Wycombe (pronounced “wikkum”) and have a look around. The bus station in Hi Wikkum turned out to be right beside a big mall. Kathy had asked me to pick up a few things if I got the chance, so I headed for Tesco (kind of like a Zehrs store in Canada), found what I wanted, and made my way to the checkout.

Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I was hoping to be able to use a credit card to pay for my purchases. But not my PC one because they have a tendency to put a block on that card whenever I use it anywhere other than back home in Canada (unless I notify them in advance, which I didn’t this time). So I pulled out another card and handed it to the cashier.

After 3-4 tries, she said that it wouldn’t work, probably because it didn’t have a chip in it. Apparently no one uses chip-less credit cards here anymore! So I ended up pulling out my limited cash to pay the bill.

Moving on, I searched out the HMV store. A colleague told me that he’d bought some DVDs on sale there, so I thought I’d have a look. Sure enough, I found a few at a good price and proceeded to the checkout counter, determined to try my credit card again. When I asked if they took chip-less cards, the cashier said yes. So I gave it to him and he swiped it.

“It says the card’s expired,” he said. I looked at the date on it, and sure enough it was! Duh! So I pulled out another card. This one worked just fine and I was able to purchase my DVDs. I was so excited to discover I had a card that worked, and thus wouldn’t have to go to the hassle of trying to get money out of a bank machine (with all the crazy charges they stick on top of such transactions) that it crossed my mind to go on a quick spending spree before the company discovered what I was doing and blocked the card! But then I remembered who would have to pay the bill. I decided to go and catch the nearest bus back to the training centre before I did any serious damage. Unfortunately, a bookstore ambushed me on the way to the bus station...

I Feel Like a Pack Horse!

When people in Burkina learned that I was going to England for a few days, they began asking if I would be willing to bring some stuff back for them. Stuff like books and equipment is very expensive to ship or mail to Burkina, even if ordered from places in nearby Europe instead of Canada or the USA. But if it could be ordered in Europe or the UK and shipped to the training centre I was going to... well, that was another story! And it would be such a shame to waste the hefty 46 kg baggage allowance I had on the return flight, wouldn't it?

So the person in charge of our Centre library went nuts, ordering so many linguistic books and biblical commentaries that it wasn’t long before I received a frantic note from the training centre’s mailroom supervisor in England wondering who I was, where I was, and when I planned to come and clear out their mailroom! They were being swamped by packages with my name on them! I did my best to calm her down and put her mind at ease.

Then our centre kitchen decided that this was the ideal opportunity to order a quality ice cream maker and a pasta machine. The two additional large, heavy packages that arrived prompted another panic-filled message to my inbox. The person in charge begged me to please make it stop! I gave her the best advice I could: Pray that those ordering all these things would soon reach the end of their budgets!

When I finally arrived at the mailroom here in England, I was given a hero’s welcome. The ladies there jumped up from their chairs with big smiles on their faces and exclaimed, “So you’re Mike! You’re famous around here!” With eager hands, they showed me the pile of packages waiting for me, and helped me carry them out to the front door. This act alone nearly doubled their available floor space in that office.

I spent a good chunk of time packing all that stuff into the two duffle bags I’d brought along for this purpose. It took a bit of manoeuvring and rearranging, but I finally managed to get it all in and evenly distributed into two bags of 23 kgs each. Now I just need to get them to the airport!