Monday, December 28, 2009

I Need Air!

The air conditioner in our living room began acting up the week before Christmas. It no longer cooled properly and the fins became rapidly blocked with ice and frost every time we turned it on. At first, I thought the condensation water drain tube was blocked and backing up. But I couldn’t find anything wrong there. Fortunately, it’s not the hot time of the year, but Kathy wasn’t looking forward to having to cook Christmas dinner without some A/C to help cool down the living room and kitchen area of the house!

So I called our trusty Burkinabè electrician, Daouda. He and his team came over last Monday morning to check things out. They discovered that the unit was low on Freon. Since we’d not even had the machine for a year yet, this meant there had to be a leak somewhere. So they removed the unit and took it somewhere for testing and repair.

By Wednesday, I still hadn’t heard anything. And Christmas was coming up fast! So I called Daouda. He said they were still testing the machine but hadn’t found anything yet. I began to frantically think of a way to motivate him to do his best to get the thing back in place and functioning in time for the holidays. Finally it came to me.

“Daouda,” I began, “you’ve got to help me out here. If that unit isn’t back in place and working before Dec 25th, I am not going to get anything to eat on that day because my wife won’t cook a meal for me without it.” For a Burkinabè man, things can’t get much worse than that, and Daouda immediately promised to do his utmost.

The air conditioner was back and working by mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. I wasn’t there to thank Daouda and his team for their effort on my behalf because I was busy with the young lady who’d run into our truck. But I sent him a thank-you message on his cell phone.

On Christmas morning, I get a phone call from Daouda. “Is your wife cooking you a nice Christmas dinner?” he asked. “As we speak,” I replied, “thanks to you and your team!”

It was a great Christmas dinner :)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

One Lucky Girl

Christmas Eve was a day off for everyone at the SIL Centre in Ouagadougou and I was looking forward to a day mostly at home in order to get ready for Christmas. All I had to do first was run a quick errand for a friend and pick up a new battery for our truck in town. I should have known better. It didn’t turn out that way at all.

To begin with, it was an absolute zoo downtown. It took me 15 minutes to get through one intersection alone! I should have known better than to go at this season of the year, but our truck battery has been hinting that it’s getting ready to give up the ghost over the last several months and I was afraid that it would leave us high and dry somewhere right during the holidays.

However, it was on the way back home that the really unexpected happened. I decided to pop into Decorama, a Lebanese-owned store in the Zone de Bois area of Ouaga, to see if they had some of those LED Christmas light sets. A few of ours have been giving us trouble (I think the cat’s probably been chewing on a few wires). Anyway, as I was approaching the store, I threw on my right turn signal and began to slow down for the turn into the parking area. Just as I began to turn, I glanced in my right side mirror and, to my horror, saw a young lady on a moto come barrelling up on my passenger side, going far too fast and obviously oblivious to my turn signal. I slammed on my brakes but it was too late. She frantically tried to swerve to miss me, but didn’t really have enough room to manoeuvre. Instead, she grazed the side of the truck, bounced off, lost control, and careened off towards the storefront before hitting the pavement hard and sliding to a stop. It was all over in a matter of seconds.

Leaving the truck where it was, I ran over to where the young lady was crawling out from under the bike. Gasoline and oil were dripping out of the engine, and a few plastic body parts lay scattered nearby. The young lady made an effort to get up but couldn’t do it. She ended up rolling over onto her back, crying from shock and pain of her accident. A crowd of people quickly gathered.

Holding her hand in an attempt to provide some initial comfort, I told someone to get something to put under her head, and checked her over visually for injuries. Apart from a scratch on her neck, a small scrape on her elbow, two bigger scrapes on her foot (she’d only been wearing sandals and these had come off in the accident), and dirt on her jeans, she seemed to be in one piece. No bones appeared to be broken. She wasn’t wearing a helmet (most people here in Burkina don’t), so she was darn lucky she hadn’t hit her head!

After a few moments, we got her up and inside the store where the young Lebanese manager got us chairs to sit on, as well as a bottle of water, a box of tissues, and some rubbing alcohol for the girl. She nearly hit the roof when he tried to clean her wounds with the alcohol! It must have stung something fierce but she hardly made a sound, just squirmed violently in her chair from the pain. But eventually we got her settled down enough to call someone from her family. I ended up sitting there with her for two hours before two young women arrived. And they appeared to be none too happy with me! They probably assumed that it was me who had hit her!

Anyway, we took the injured girl to a nearby clinic where they cleaned her up and prescribed some painkillers, as well as an antibiotic to guard against infection. After this, one of the young women took her home while the other young lady and I went back to Decorama to look at the moto. It was soon clear than it was not driveable. So I offered to put it in the back of my truck and take it to her home. Home turned out to be in Ouaga 2000, a ritzy new part of the city for the wealthy and upwardly mobile.

As we were driving there, I pointed out how fortunate the girl in the accident had been. It could have been a lot worse, like what happened to our son Josh back in 2005 when he crashed into and went flying over the hood of a truck that cut him off. He ended up breaking his arm and had to have a metal plate inserted to help the bone set properly. The girl riding with me said that a similar thing had happened to her, except that it was her leg that had been broken. Pulling up part of her dress on one side, she showed me a long scar on her upper leg, the only visible indication of what must have been a pretty traumatic experience at the time.

Yesterday morning, on Christmas day, I called the injured girl to see how she was doing. Apart from her throat, which was still quite painful, especially when she tried to talk (it’s likely that this is where she connected with the handlebars of her moto when she fell), she said she was fine. Tongue in cheek, I pointed out that her sore throat was not necessarily a bad thing. Her family would no doubt be quite thankful for a respite from her constant nagging and complaints!

Fortunately for me, her sense of humour was fine too :)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas Fun

Every year at this time, employees of SIL-Burkina Faso receive a Christmas card with the equivalent of about $20 in cash in it. This might not sound like a lot to a North American, but it is a significant amount to the average Burkinabè worker. As the Administrative Services Director and I prepared these for distribution, we hatched a plan to have some fun in the affair!

In the envelope of a number of strategically chosen employees (those we suspected would react in an interesting manner), instead of cash, we placed the following note (which I’ve translated from French here):

“The Minister of Social Services thanks you for having decided to voluntarily donate your annual Christmas gift of 10,000 F CFA to the victims of this past September’s disastrous flood.”

As you can imagine, we had reactions alright! A few were relatively mild, with people coming back into the office wearing puzzled expressions. Others were more vocal, like that of our Centre Hostess who called me from her office: “Hello? Is this the Minister of Social Services? I’m afraid there’s been some kind of mistake here!” Haha, we could both hardly talk for laughing!

And then there was the lady from the computer department. She came into my office already giggling. When I tried to hand her the envelope with her card and gift, she refused to take it, asking me to open it for her! Of course, I refused, saying that it was hers and I couldn’t open it. I finally convinced her, amid much laughter, to take it and sign for it. As she was signing, I asked her why she was so hesitant to take it. Did she suspect me of something? She was giggling so much that she couldn’t answer. As she was leaving, I asked if she wasn’t going to open the envelope to make sure that what she had signed for was in there. So she did.

The funny part about this is that her envelope is one of those that we did not tamper with! But someone had let the cat out of the bag to her about what was going on and she assumed the same would happen to her. We both ended up having a good laugh about it all.

Now we have to start thinking about what we’re going to do next year...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dealing With Disaster

This past Saturday afternoon, I drove out with our day guard to take a look at his place. He, his wife of several years, and their two year old daughter live as squatters in an outlying area of Ouaga that has not yet been subdivided into lots. People do this in hopes that when the area is finally surveyed and subdivided, they will have first dibs on the piece of property on which they have been living. For ordinary folks, this is the cheapest and probably only way they will ever have a chance of owning their own piece of land. Buying a piece of property that has already been subdivided is far beyond their reach.

The drawback is that it isn’t worth it in the long run to build anything permanent in the interim. When the surveying is finally done, it’s almost inevitable that they will have to break down whatever they have built in order to accommodate the new property lines. However, in the meantime, they do need a place to live and a way to have some privacy. Thus, houses and courtyard walls tend to be built of mud brick rather than cement block, minimizing the initial cost, and the subsequent loss when subdivision finally occurs (mud bricks cost 25 francs and cement blocks cost 200 francs).

When the torrential rains fell one day this past September, our guard’s place was inundated. Water flooded the courtyard and reached a height of several feet even in their house. Within hours, the water had soaked into the courtyard wall, softening the mud bricks that it was made of, with the result that it simply crumbled and fell. They were afraid that the same thing was going to happen to their house. The only thing that saved it was that our guard had had the foresight and resources to place it on a cement foundation.

Now he wants to do a similar thing with a new wall, building the bottom three courses out of cement blocks, and the upper part with the regular mud bricks. This will mean spending limited, hard-earned money on something that is temporary.  But as I said previously, they do need a wall that will provide some privacy for at least several years yet, and be able to withstand the coming rainy season next year. We’ll do what we can to help.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hobnobbing With Diplomats

On Friday evening, I did something that I’ve never done before. I went to the Canadian ambassador’s place for an informal gathering of expatriates and Africans. Apparently they have these little get-togethers once a month here in Ouaga, providing people like me with an opportunity to touch base with fellow Canadians and other invited guests. However, this is the first time that I’ve received an invitation to attend. Kathy would have come with me, but she had another function to attend that evening.

The Canadian ambassador’s residence is in a ritzy new area of Ouagadougou called Ouaga 2000. There was a map attached to the e-mail invitation, but I ended up finding the place more by accident than design, driving around where I thought it appeared to be on the map (road signage leaves something to be desired here). After some time of doing this, I finally pulled up at a place that had a few vehicles parked out front and security guards at the gate. “Where’s the Canadian ambassador’s place?” I asked one of them. “This is it,” he replied. How often does that happen, eh? :)

Within minutes, I was inside the courtyard and made my way around to the back yard with its lawn and swimming pool. I purchased a booklet of tickets that would enable me to get drinks and food (hamburgers and shish-kebabs were on the menu that evening) and soon found myself talking to none other than the ambassador himself. I always find it interesting that here in Burkina, we can talk to diplomats and other highly placed people that we normally couldn’t get to within half a mile of back in Canada!

As I was getting my shish-kebab, I noticed a gentleman beside me struggling to understand what the lady behind the serving table was saying to him in French. Seeking to be helpful, I translated for him and a few moments later discovered that I was talking with the Australian High Commissioner for this part of Africa. He was up from Accra for a meeting with the president of Burkina that day. We ended up having a good little chat since he was familiar with the work of SIL in Australia.

I spent most of the rest of the evening talking with several folks from Quebec. It was a touch of home to hear that québécois accent again. Then it was time to go back to our humble hovel in one of the lower class suburbs of Ouaga. It might not be a big, fancy place, but it’s home sweet home to me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Sleeping Allowed!

One of my Burkinabè friends is a toll-gate operator on the main road that runs south of Ouaga. All of Burkina’s main roads have toll-gates where fees are collected from any vehicle with more than two wheels (motos, bicycles, and pedestrians are exempt), depending on the size of vehicle and the distance one plans to travel on the road. It’s not expensive. To go to the Kusassi region, I’ve got to use the road running south of Ouaga for 80 kms before turning off on a side road, and it costs me about 50 cents to do so.

Some of the toll stops have booths placed similar to those on toll ways in the United States. You drive up to one, roll down your window, pay the toll, and receive a ticket, all without getting out of your car. But not the one on the road south of Ouaga. Here you have to stop somewhere along the side of the road, get out, and conduct your business with a booth operator set back from the road on the passenger side of the car. Or you can get any one of the dozens of young men crowding around your vehicle to do it for you. For a small fee, of course. At the same time, a horde of vendors will descend on you, selling everything from bread, tissues, gum, matches, and phone cards to fruit, snacks, eggs, and locally baked goods. It can be quite intimidating for the uninitiated!

Once you have your ticket, you get back in your car, drive up to the gate, and give it to the toll-gate operator who then tears off part of it and hands it back to you before opening the gate and letting you pass through. It’s good to hang on to that stub, though, because at any given point down the road, you may be stopped for verification by the police who set up a checkpoint somewhere. If you’re caught without a ticket, you’ll receive a fine of about $4.00 plus the price of a ticket. No, I’m not talking from experience here :) My friend told me.

Toll-gate operators are required to do a 24 shift every three days. And they’re not supposed to sleep during this entire time. Unannounced checks are periodically conducted to make sure this doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, it happened to my friend last month. He was caught sleeping at 2 o’clock in the morning. The penalty? He lost his entire month’s salary! Ouch! That’s a pretty stiff penalty if you ask me, particularly in a country where so many people live virtually from hand to mouth. I suspect he won’t be doing that again for a while! Maybe I should have brought him back a pound of Starbucks bold as a present.