Saturday, March 27, 2010

Changing the Way Things Are Done Here

Sorry for the long silence on my blog, folks. I’ve been scrambling to learn and carry out my new administrative role in SIL – Burkina Faso (kind of like trying to learn to fly, maintain, and repair an airplane while it’s still in the air!) and just haven’t figured out how to pack more than 24 hours into a day yet :/ Besides, admin stuff usually doesn’t make for very interesting reading!

Another problem is that after being here for a while, you start to get so used to things that they seem normal instead of interesting and different. You no longer “see” people and events like you used to when you first come here. Everything starts to look “ordinary” and you end up wondering what there is interesting to write about!

Anyway, today I got a letter from our night guard. He wants a loan to buy a moto. This is nothing new. When we first moved into our current home back in 2004, the first thing all three guards (day, night, and replacement) asked for were loans to buy motos. Nothing asked, nothing gained, right? Besides, taking a loan from your employer is a method of job security here. You’re less likely to fire someone, even if they do a poor job, if they still owe you a substantial amount of money :)

Of course, we’ve refused every request for a moto loan that we’ve received from them over the years. It's not that they couldn't use a moto.  But not only would it take them years to pay it off; we also just don’t have that kind of spare cash laying around! Being a guard doesn’t rank very high on the salary scale, and they can usually barely make ends meet with what they receive as it is. Adding loan payments on top of that wouldn’t be doing them a favour. Besides, who do you think will end up paying for maintenance and repairs? That’s right, yours truly, because they won’t have the money to do it. And you can bet there will be maintenance and repairs to do!

At one point in the past, I suggested that instead of me giving them a loan and them then paying it back in instalments, I could simply deduct a certain amount from their salary each month and keep it aside for them, kind of like a private “savings account” until they had enough to buy a moto. But they turned me down, saying that’s not the way it’s done here in Africa. However, had they taken me up on it, they could have bought a moto several times over by now!

But this time, I looked at the loan request a little differently. It was only for 150,000 FCFA (about $300) instead of the usual 400,000 – 500,000 FCFA ($800 - $1,000). And the guard proposed paying it off in monthly instalments of 15,000. I know this would be tough for him, but he said he could do it. So here’s what I proposed: For the next 5 months, I will deduct 15,000/month from his salary and set it aside as savings. If he succeeded in reaching 75,000 FCFA in savings that way, I’d loan him the other 75,000 to buy his moto, which he could then continue paying off in instalments. That way, the up-front initiative and costs are on him, which will show me he’s serious and willing to sacrifice. Otherwise, I’m the only one making a sacrifice (and now scrambling to make ends meet myself!) and the guard gets all the benefits at absolutely no initial cost to himself.

Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s not the way they do things here in Africa. But nothing asked, nothing gained, right?

His answer? “Okay.” :)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Power Problems Again

The power cuts have started again. Two weeks ago, it was for 15-30 minutes at a time once or twice a day. Now that the temperature is becoming a serious issue (43 degrees Celsius), the cuts typically last for several hours at a time. When that happened a couple of Saturdays ago at almost noon, we soon found ourselves sitting on the veranda in front of our house with our next door neighbours. It wasn’t any cooler outside than inside, but at least there was a bit of a breeze outside.

After an hour or so, we’d had enough and decided to go to the pool at the local ritzy hotel, the Silmandé. For about $5, you could swim in their nice, large, and clean pool all day long. Add chaise lounges in the shade and cold drinks and who can resist?

There weren’t many people there when we arrived and we had the pool virtually to ourselves. After a couple of laps, it was over to the chaise lounges in the shade of some trees. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the hot breezes to dry us off and heat us up again. So it was back into the pool. Except that after a few rounds of this, we could feel the tingling starting on our shoulders and necks. The entire pool was completely exposed to the sun so it was only a matter of time before we started to burn.

At that point, we discovered an outdoor rinse-off shower near our resting place. So when I began to heat up, I just went and stood under that for a few seconds to cool off.

This solution works on the weekends. But during the week, we can’t just take off for the pool all day. So I hooked up the 5.5 Kw diesel generator we used to use in the village. I don’t have a cement pad poured for it yet, nor a pipe to take the exhaust and noise out over the courtyard wall. But the wiring was put in last year and if we close the doors and windows and turn on the A/C, the noise isn’t too bad. At least we can keep cool in these 40 degree temps.

Now I’m just waiting for the people in the next courtyard over to come and ask if they can run a cord from our generator to their place…

Monday, March 8, 2010

Adventures in Health Care

Last Friday, one of the participants at a seminar on our Centre, a man from Togo, got ill with severe abdominal pains. It was the middle of the night and he was staying in one of our Centre guesthouses, so he got up and woke up a colleague. Together, they went to the night guard for help, who in turn phoned the assistant Centre manager because he lived nearby. The assistant manager managed to call a taxi at 3 o’clock in the morning (not an easy feat in our area of Ouaga in the middle of the night!) and took the Togolese man to a clinic. There they gave him something for the pain and told him to come back later in the morning when more personnel would be on duty to do tests (good thing it turned out not to be appendicitis or later in the morning would have been too late!)

So, after several hours of drug-induced sleep, he was taken back to the clinic for tests. They took some blood, did an ultrasound, and told him to come back again the following morning for the results, sometime after 8 a.m. He was also supposed to bring a urine sample.

Since the next day was Saturday, I took him to the clinic myself. Upon arrival shortly after 8 o’clock, he presented his urine sample. The doctor on duty, a young lady (the same one that had seen him on Friday), refused to take it. She said too much time had elapsed between when he had given the sample and when he had brought it to the clinic. He needed to bring the sample for analysis first thing in the morning, around 7 a.m. So she asked him to bring another sample on Monday.

The man looked disappointed and I was none too happy myself. It’s typical of medical personnel here not to tell patients what they need to know or even to explain things to them. Just thinking about this and the amount of time and money that patients, many of them with extremely limited resources, waste because of this put me into a slow burn.

I asked the doctor why she hadn’t explained this to the man. He had no medical training, so could not be expected to know this unless someone told him. She said that he didn’t need medical training to know this. It’s just common sense that biological samples would deteriorate rapidly in the heat of Burkina. I shook my head and told her that in my opinion, she had not done her job properly. She should not assume that ordinary people know things like this. She should take care to explain it to them and not waste their money and their time.

Of course, the lady immediately got huffy. You don’t tell doctors in Burkina how to do their job! In a very tight voice, she told the man to go home and bring another sample back on Monday, but earlier this time, with as little time elapsed between giving the sample and bringing it to the lab. Then, turning to me with an angry look on her face, she said, “And yes, I should have explained it to him yesterday, and I didn’t! I’m sorry!”

Well, she didn’t sound sorry.  She sounded like my kids used to when I'd make one apologize for doing something nasty to the other.  But I realized that in her present state of mind, this was probably as close to an admission of not having done the right thing and an apology as we were going to get. Will it make any difference with her future patients? I don’t know. I hope so. Most Burkinabè wouldn’t have said anything to her. You just don’t question the doctor, even if you’re not happy with what he or she has done. But unless someone says something, things will never change. And since I’m not Burkinabè, I figured that someone might just as well be me.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Power Problems

Some months back, there was great celebration in Ouaga when the power lines bringing electricity up from Ivory Coast were finally completed. No more power cuts! Yay! Yeah, right.

They started again last month, just 15-20 minutes long at first. But as the hot season progressed and the need for A/C increased, the cuts got longer and longer. Now they can last anywhere from 2-6 hours. So what was the big deal with this power line from Ivory Coast? According to someone from SONABEL (Burkina's national electric company), Ivory Coast doesn’t even have enough power for itself, never mind sending any extra to us here in Burkina! But that wasn’t really the point, you see. The important thing is that there was an agreement to do this project between the two countries. And it got done. Which means improved relations between them. Whether it actually works or not is a secondary issue.

So what are we to do when it’s 40-45 degrees Celsius outside and the power is cut? Well, there are backup generators. We have one on the SIL Centre and it’s been a real life-saver. However, once in a while we do run into problems even with a backup generator. Like last Friday. Somebody miscalculated or left things too late and the generator ran out of fuel right at the hottest part of the day!

Getting more fuel, however, was the easy part. Had it been a gasoline engine, we could have simply filled it up and started it again. But this is a diesel engine. When diesel engines run out of fuel, they get air in the fuel lines, and this air has to be purged from the lines before the motor will run again. Unfortunately, no one on our Centre knew how to do that.

So I called the diesel mechanic who had done the regular maintenance on our generator for the past several years. He said he’d be there within the hour. I should have known better. Fortunately, the power cut ended before too long. Nevertheless, I kept calling and calling him. We needed backup power because we had no idea when the next power cut would occur or how long it would last. No answer. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., I got him and once again he said that he was on his way. An hour later, still nothing. So we called again. And at this point, for some unknown reason, the mechanic flat-out refused to come!

Now it was 5:30 on a Friday night, and we had a three-day long weekend ahead of us. We could not go that long without backup power. But where in the world were we going to find a diesel mechanic who would be willing to come and help us at that time of the day and week?

Our Administrative Services Director began making phone calls to his connections, pleading with them to give him the name and number of someone who could help us. Finally, after a number of tries, he reached a mechanic that was willing to come. And within a couple of hours, the generator was ready to go again. Whew!

I think we need a backup system for our backup system.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I just read an article in the paper about a Burkinabè woman that was arrested for trafficking in babies. She claimed to be the president of an organization in Burkina that looked after helping babies, orphans, and street children. What she actually did was arrange for pregnant women nearly at term to travel to Chad, then to Libya, and then to Italy where they gave birth and then gave up their babies for adoption with European couples looking for children. Both she and the mothers would receive a percentage of the money received from the adoption price.

While I can’t agree to trafficking in children, I must admit that I’m amazed at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of this woman! I’d like to see more people like this here in Burkina! All too often, people in need here just want handouts. No one ever asks what they can do for me in return for some money. No one ever comes up with some creative idea to earn a living. If they do have an idea to do something, it’s the same as what hundreds of other people are already doing, and in exactly the same area. How do they expect to make any money in a saturated market like that?

Just the other day, our replacement guard asked for a loan to open a battery-charging business in an outlying area of the city where there is yet no electrical power. He used to have this kind of business where he currently lives, but electricity has since arrived in that sector, and no one there needs him to charge their batteries anymore. So he’s planning to move further afield.

The only problem is that there are already dozens of other people operating battery-charging businesses in that area. In competition with them, he’ll earn peanuts... if that.

True, part of the problem for not having creative ideas for earning a living is lack of exposure to new ideas. Many of these people can’t read or write very well, if at all, so their ability to read magazines and newspapers is limited.

Nevertheless, in one sense, I think it would be a shame for this woman to go to prison. Someone with that kind of resourcefulness should be working for the government!