Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ya Pays Yer Money & Ya Takes Yer Chances

Remember our day guard, Benjamin? I ran a post on him some time back when he needed to borrow some money to rebuild the wall around his courtyard because it had been destroyed by the flood last September. Well, I lent him the money for that and asked him from time to time how things were coming along. Sounds like all went well until the very last stage, that of putting a cement coating on the mostly mud-brick wall to protect it from the upcoming rains. At that point the mason went off to work on other jobs, promising to come back and finish the work in the near future. He hasn’t been back since.

And why should he? Benjamin already paid him for the work in advance! And I thought it was only us dumb foreigners that made mistakes like this! I can’t believe the number of times I hear of local people making this kind of mistake as well.

I suggested that he get another mason to come and finish the work. He tried. But no other mason will touch a job that a fellow mason has begun. Some kind of code of honour among themselves, I guess. Too bad they wouldn’t extend that kind of honour to their customers!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Broken Arm Update

Last weekend, we dropped in to see David, our Centre day guard. He’s the guy that had his arm broken in a motorcycle accident a while back. Well, they still haven’t operated on it yet. The surgeon is just too busy to do it before mid-March. Not the way we’d prefer to have things done, or the way they’d be done in Canada. But that’s the reality here.

The good news is that the surface wound he received appears to be healing without infection. That was one of our main concerns. And according to the latest x-ray, no significant new bone seems to be forming. If it was, they’d have to break it again in order to reset it properly. Nevertheless, in this heat, he must be itching like crazy inside that cast!

We thought about sending him somewhere else to have the repair done. But everyone we’ve talked to says that the main hospital is the best place to get bones reset. The other option is to send him out of the country. But that puts things into a whole different ball park, not just in terms of expenses, but in terms of having to send someone competent with him to make sure he was properly looked after.

Guess we’ll wait and see what happens in mid-March.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

It Was Worth A Try

We’re on the lookout for some house help here in Ouaga, someone to clean our place, do dishes and wash clothes, and maybe even cook some meals. With all our current responsibilities, we have neither the time nor energy to do all this stuff. With the harmattan wind blowing, our place needs cleaning at least twice a week. And dish washing, clothes washing, and meal preparation generally take longer than they do back home. After being at work all day, we just want to crash when we get home.

So far, we’ve been employing a guy part-time to do some of this. He’s an older guy who’s had some experience working for expatriates. Unfortunately, he can neither read nor write, which makes it hard to send him to the market or a store a shopping list. Nevertheless, after several weeks of just cleaning the house and occasionally doing the dishes, Kathy decided to ask him to make us a meal.

After telling her that he was planning to make a salad and scalloped potatoes with ground beef, he headed off to the market to get the ingredients. He returned with leaf lettuce, cabbage, and green beans. Are you thinking what we were thinking? Right. What kind of salad would that make? Upon questioning, he admitted that he might have forgotten a thing or two.

Kathy sent him back to the market to get some tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. He used those along with the leaf lettuce he’d bought to make the salad. The cabbage and beans are still in the fridge.

The scalloped potatoes with ground beef was good. So was the salad, modified as it was from its original concept. But the planning and purchasing aspects of the task need some work...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Money & Friendship

Last week, we had a colleague come to us with a dilemma. A Burkinab√® friend was planning to shoot a film about a famous musician in the country. However, to get financing for the film, he first had to host an event to which potential funders would be invited. He said he’d already been promised money by one funder who was planning to come to the event. The problem was that he needed money to host the event. Could our colleague lend him the money for this, with the understanding that she would be paid back as soon as the first of the funding for the film came in?

The dilemma arose from the fact that to refuse to help could cost her the relationship (unlike in North America or Europe, friendship in Burkina includes the right to ask a friend for money and an obligation on the part of the friend to give it if at all possible). However, if she did give him the money (it was quite a significant amount), there was no guarantee that she would ever get it back. Two Burkinabè acquaintances had already told her that there was a 90% chance that this is exactly what would happen. So what should she do?

When we lived in the village, we often had requests for money from friends. These were usually for significant amounts and we rarely felt that we could afford to “lose” that much money. So we ended up trying to find polite ways to say no. Needless to say, our friends were not happy about this. It took us a while to figure out that they did not actually expect us to give them the full amount they required. They were simply making the rounds of all their friends and we were on the list!

The solution? Give them a token amount or whatever you thought you could afford. This resulted in a win-win situation for everyone. The friendship was preserved because you showed empathy and contributed something to help them in their time of need. And if your friend never managed to pay you back (they usually didn’t), then it was no great loss.

So that’s what we advised our colleague to do.

On Friday, I asked her what happened and how things had turned out. She said that her friend had come by and she had given him some money as a gift towards the cost of the event. He had taken it, thanked her, and left. Later on, he sent her a text message to thank her again. The friendship was intact, and our colleague did not have to worry whether or not she was ever going to get her loan money back. All was well :)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Positive Side of the Negative

One of the most interesting things I’ve been learning over the past few years is the value of negative experiences and events. Usually we have a very narrow view of these things, seeing them only in the limited terms of their negative impact. This is especially true if we’re intimately involved in them, if we’re the ones being impacted!

My change of perspective was a long time in coming and is still not totally consistent, but I’m learning :) It actually started a number of years ago when I realized that “blessings” in the biblical sense were not necessarily positive in nature. They could also be negative in nature, but still considered a blessing because they ultimately had a positive impact.

Sometimes, the positive impact of a negative event or experience just happens and you can see it and rejoice (though it often takes time and is only visible in hindsight). Other times, you have to make an effort to harness the positive value. That was probably my first real experience in this domain. I was going through a very emotionally intense negative family experience and realized that if I didn’t find a positive outlet or a way to harness those emotions constructively, they would eat me alive. I ended up pouring them into speaking opportunities and presentations, where they enabled me to speak and present with a passion I could never have manufactured on my own.

Over this past year, I’ve seen two more instances of potentially negative events having a positive impact (of course, whether or not something is negative or not depends on which side of the fence you’re standing). One involved the national Bible translation organization here in Burkina and a local language community initiative called the Kusassi Association. The latter wanted the help of the former to teach and help them run a language project themselves. The former wanted the latter to get out of the way so they could go in and do the project their way, and they tried all kinds of strategies to achieve their end. Naturally, this distressed both me and the Kusassi since we believed that ownership and sustainability would best be achieved by local language communities taking charge of their own development.

However, all attempts to sideline or by-pass the Kusassi Association only served to strengthen it and enhance its reputation and connection with the community! The association, by its own efforts and limited resources, could never have accomplished what outside pressure and opposition has done for them. I told them that they should at least write a letter to the national Bible translation organization, thanking them for the positive impact their actions have had!

The other instance of potentially negative events having a positive impact happened just this past week at our organizational conference. A faction in our group had determined that it was preferable for us as a group to relinquish our organizational charter, thus giving up any right to directly govern ourselves at the country level and handing this responsibility over to a body at the regional level. They cited greater efficiency of personnel and resources, and a lack of sufficient personnel and interest in self-governance as the prime rationale, and sought by all means to convince a majority of our personnel of this.

But rather than achieving their objective, their efforts resulted in exactly the opposite. It was as if people who had been taking things for granted and waiting for others to do them suddenly woke up! They realized that unless they stepped up to the plate and were willing to help swing the bat, they were going to lose their right to make decisions that directly affected their future. An overwhelming majority voted to keep our charter and a sufficient number stepped up to indicate their willingness to serve on our internal governance body.

This is the group I am now going to lead. What a great time to step into this position! There are going to be challenges, difficulties, and problems for sure. But overall, things are looking good :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Modern Medicine

The other day, I came home for lunch and noticed that Benjamin, our day guard, had one of those little plastic name tags clipped to his shirt. Not sure where he managed to pick that up. However, instead of his name in there, he had written in his job description! We thought it was kinda cute. Maybe we should be thinking about getting him a real ID tag :)

A couple of nights ago, we were out for supper with friends and had just finished when I got a call from our night guard. He said that Benjamin had come to see us. Benjamin doesn’t have a cellphone yet. But the fact that he’s coming to speak to us in the evening could only mean one thing: somebody in his family was seriously sick.

Sure enough, when we got home, we learned that his little daughter was quite ill and he needed money to take her to the clinic. So we gave it to him.

Yesterday, he brought us the prescription he’d received for her. It was exactly what we’d expected: the shotgun approach to medicine that they use here. Rather than running tests and coming up with an exact diagnosis, they just prescribe a broad spectrum of medication in hopes that one of them will hit the problem. So on the prescription was an anti-malarial, an antibiotic, painkiller, and a cough syrup. Well, something must have worked because Benjamin says his daughter is better!

Our night guard, Harouna, has been having some health problems too. A couple of weeks ago, he was off work for several days due to a bad case of malaria. Then he had a sore stomach and kept throwing up, so the doctor prescribed a laxative. Last night he came with a prescription for four different Chinese herbal medications that he’d received from a Chinese clinic. These were going to cost us a small fortune, and Kathy didn’t recognize any of them. Nor did we have any indication what they were supposed to be treating. We told him to go to a regular clinic and get some proper tests done. We’ll see what happens :/

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bandit Warning

Last week, I was scheduled to go on a trip to Niaogho, a small town in Bissa country, along with the director of SIL and several people from the Bible Society of Burkina Faso. Normally, we would take the Po road south from Ouaga, hang a left at the Manga turnoff, and head east from there, about a two-hour trip one way.

However, the day before the trip, we were informed by the leader of the Bissa translation project in Niaogho that there was bandit activity in the isolated region between Manga and Niaogho. He advised us to take the long way around through, along the Fada road to Koupela, south to Tenkodogo, and then east through Garongo to Niaogho. This would add an extra hour and a half to our trip one-way, but better safe than sorry, right?

Once in Niaogho, I talked to some of the other people at the meeting. All assured me that it was safe to take the shorter route home. The bandits only operated in the early morning hours, so we would be safe in mid-afternoon. Besides, the police were patrolling that stretch of road during the day.

A little confused by what appeared to be conflicting reports, I mentioned this to the leader of the Bissa translation project. He pointed out to everyone that just two days ago, bandits had fired on a vehicle in broad daylight, and there were no police around to stop them!

We took the long way home.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fun With Google Maps & Google Earth

Last week I had some fun with Google Maps and Google Earth. It started when I was writing some entries on a Google group that Kathy has set up on places to eat, see, and stay in Ouaga. I was having trouble describing where to find a certain resto we’d been to lately and decided that I needed to look it up on a map. Of course, Google Maps was my first choice.

When I was looking at a Google map of Ouagadougou, I noticed that you can make personalized maps for whatever purpose you want and link them to a blog page. So I thought, “Why not make a map that indicates where different restaurants are located and put a link to it on Kathy’s Google group?” That would take away the burden of having to describe how to get there. People could just look it up themselves.

So that’s what I did.

A few days later, I was talking with a Burkinab√® colleague. I forget what the subject was, but it prompted me to launch Google Earth on my computer to show him something. He was astounded at this program and the level of detail it provided!  "Wow!" he exclaimed.  "Nobody can hide anymore!"

I showed him our Centre and where we lived (both of which I had bookmarked on the map). Then, just for fun, I decided to locate the home of our Centre day guard (the one who broke his arm recently in a moto accident). We had just been to visit him together that morning, so had no trouble finding it on the map. I bookmarked it.

Then I thought, “Hey, this is a great tool!” Whenever I visit friends, colleagues, or employees that live in the Ouaga area, I can never find their place again, especially if it’s not in one of the more well-known areas of the city. From now on, I’m going to mark their location on my Google Earth map. Until we get GPS units for cars here (at prices we can afford), this will work just fine.

In the meantime, my colleague entreated me to help get Google Earth loaded on his laptop.  When I last saw him, he was busy searching for his own house on the map.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


As we were driving out the gate of our Centre in Ouagadougou one evening, headed for home a few kilometres away, one of the night guards held up his hand to stop us. We rolled down the window and he told us that the Centre’s day guard, who had left to go home a half hour earlier, had just had an accident on his motorcycle. It happened on the main east-west road, about a kilometre away.

We could well imagine the scene. Him driving down the narrow, ill-lit road on his small motorcycle amid all the other people heading home from work on bicycles, motos, and cars, with some trucks and donkey carts thrown in for good measure. Some people trying to get on the road, others making left turns to get off, and still others just trying to cross the road from one side to the other. It was one of these latter people that caused the accident. Misjudging the traffic, he darted across the road on his bicycle right in front of our guard.

In attempting to avoid a collision, our guard lost control of his moto and fell. And broke his left arm just above the elbow.

At the hospital, they told hm they’d need to operate and put in steel and screws to put the bone back together. Looking at the X-rays a couple of days later, I could see why. But first they decided to put the arm in a cast for a few days. Neither Kathy nor I are sure why. Maybe it’s because they weren’t ready to operate that day and decided to put it off until the middle of the next week. Then they sent him home.

As is customary, a number of his co-workers got off work early the following day to go and see him at home. I and a few others went to see him the day after that, taking along a bunch of bananas as a gift. He lives in a two room cement block house with at corrugated steel roof. Although middle-aged, he’s not married, so has no immediate family to help care for him. His church assigned a student to help him for a few days.

When we arrived, he came out of the bedroom to greet us, a heavy plaster cast covering his arm from shoulder to wrist. There was no sling around his neck to help carry its weight, so he had to hold on to it with his other hand as he walked or stood. It was only after he sat down that we were able to shake hands with him.

We sat crammed in various chairs in his main living room and talked for a while until we saw that he was fading. Then a co-worker prayed for him and we filed out to get back into our vehicle and be on our way.

I sure hope they do a good job on that operation and that his arm doesn’t get infected!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stuck in Meetings

Last weekend, we had a couple of guys from a company in Canada arrived to begin an organizational assessment of our group here in Burkina. This means that I’ve spent much of the past several days either in scheduling meetings, attending meetings, or travelling from one meeting to another! Does this sound fatiguing? It is.

Of course, I’m interested in hearing what conclusions these guys come up with. But to be honest, their coming to do this right now isn’t great timing. Not their fault. It was an administrative decision (no, I wasn’t involved or I’d have had something to say about it). We have a week-long organizational business conference coming up in the middle of the month for which I still have to get ready. So do a lot of the people they’re interviewing. Like I said, not great timing.

However, even more serious in my opinion is that going to meetings like this doesn’t provide for good stories for this blog! I may have to escape to visit some friends downtown one of these afternoons...

Actually, I was at a meeting downtown a couple of weeks ago. It was held in an air-conditioned hotel conference room. The meeting was three hours long and it’s the closest I’ve come to being frozen in Burkina Faso! It was soooooooooo cold in that room! And I only had a short-sleeved shirt.

The meeting included a meal. I have to admit it was a generous meal. Good food and lots of it on every plate. However, they made a serious mistake. They began bringing the food in before the meeting was over. What they didn’t realize is that as soon as the food arrived, the meeting was effectively over! No one was listening to them anymore. Unfortunately, the organizers seemed oblivious to this and droned on until that good-smelling food was half cold. *sigh*

Anyway, I’d better stop here. I have a meeting to go to.