Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Save the Slums!

Yesterday evening, I read an interview with Stewart Brand called “Save the Slums”. Some of you that are my age or a little older (from the hippie era :) may remember him as the person who put out the Whole Earth Catalogue (and its sequel, the Whole Earth Epilogue). Anyway, he had some interesting things to say about slums and squatter areas around many Third World cities. Living in a city like that and knowing people who live in these squatter areas, I was intrigued by his comments.

He says that the United Nations, following extensive research, has come to see slums as the world’s greatest solution to poverty! Brand gives several reasons. One is that slums are hotbeds of creativity. They contain millions of people trying desperately to get out of poverty, a situation that leads to collaboration and innovative ideas for getting ahead. Another reason is that slums are a valuable transition route from a rural lifestyle and economy to the urban economy, something that would be impossible for most people to do directly since they have neither the income or skills necessary to do this. When they first come in from the countryside, they work for almost nothing in the informal economy. But gradually, they move up into the formal economy and make their way out of the slums.

A third reason is that slums empower women! In the villages, women are generally part of a hierarchical society where they have little say, work hard all day, and have lots and lots of kids. But when women move to town, even the squatter areas, the hierarchical village social structure tends to break down, they tend to have fewer kids (thus defusing the population bomb), and work to get those kids some education. Women become important and even powerful in the slums. They’re often the ones running the community organizations and are considered the most reliable recipients for microfinance loans.

Finally, as a bonus, slums are good for the environment. Subsistence farming is generally ecologically devastating, so people moving from the villages to the cities is a good thing.

Does this mean that slums and squatter areas are great places to live? No. They’re full of suffering and crime. But rather than bulldozing them, Brand sees them as an invaluable transition stage for improving people’s lives and recommends that more be done to supply them with electricity, clean running water, and police to control crime.

Hmmm... an interesting perspective alright. I’ll have to run it by our friends and acquaintances in the squatter areas here and see what they think...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Patience Required

Early last week, our day guard asked me for a “Bulletin de Présence”. This is an official slip of paper on which I indicate how much gross income he earned over the past three months and it is used to calculate the amount of family benefit money he will be allotted by the government.

After only one reminder, I presented him with the requested slip of paper and gave him permission to take part of the afternoon off in order to take the paper to an office downtown (Kathy was at home that afternoon to take his place in discouraging would-be thieves). Once he handed in the paper, they told him to come back two days later, after they’d had time to process the paperwork, to get his money. So, two days later, I gave him another afternoon off to do that.

The next morning I asked him how he’d made out. “No good,” he replied. Turns out there was a line-up a mile long and he never got anywhere near the door by the time the office closed for the day. It was obvious that he was going to have to go earlier in the day. But letting him go in the morning was out of the question because neither Kathy nor I would be at home to keep an eye on things. And who knew whether or not a morning would be sufficient time to accomplish the purpose!

So I suggested that he just take the entire next day off as one of his allowed 30 annual days of holiday, and I find a replacement guard for the day. He agreed. That was Friday.

Today, I asked him again how he’d made out. He smiled and said that this time he’d succeeded. He’d gotten up at 3:30 a.m. on Friday morning and was at the downtown office by 4:30! He’d hoped that by getting up at that early hour, he’d be the first one in line when the office opened at 7 o’clock. Believe it or not, however, there were six people already in line ahead of him! I forgot to ask him how long it took before he actually got his money :/

I don’t think I’m ever going to complain about government services in Canada again.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Burkina Has Talent #2

Last week, as our Centre employees were leaving work, I noticed that one of them had several burned-out fluorescent light bulbs tied to the back of his moto. “Herman!” I said, “What in the world are you going to do with those?” Herman’s French isn’t very good, so he had a hard time communicating what he wanted to say. But I finally understood that people take these bulbs, cut them into several chunks, and make lamps out of them using batteries!

Really? This I had to see! So I asked Herman to bring me one, saying that I’d reimburse him for the cost.

On Friday, he did just that. And while I could quickly see ways to improve on it, I thought it was a pretty cool device. What they did was cut the long tube into several shorter lengths of about a foot long each. Then they took two LED bulbs and stuck one in each end of each of the shorter tubes, embedded in a piece of foam rubber that served at the same time to plug the ends of the tube.

To power the LED bulbs, they built a case out of wood scraps, big enough to hold three D-cell batteries. A scrap piece of metal formed one contact, and a nail formed the other. Wires tied around the contact ran to the leads of the LED bulbs, with a switch in between to be able to turn the lights on and off.

According to Herman, these little units (batteries not included :) sold for 750 francs (about $1.50) and were used by people living in the suburban squatter areas of Ouaga when there was not yet any electricity. I tried it out and the unit puts out just enough light to be able to see what you’re doing.

In any case, I thought it was a pretty creative way to recycle fluorescent light bulbs!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Le Gigot à la Ficelle

One place we went to during our recent week off was Le Gigot à la Ficelle (Leg of Lamb on a String). We’d driven past this place on the Route Circulaire numerous times since returning to Burkina a couple of years ago, but didn’t think much about it until I saw a reference to it on the Internet. What I read about it (as well as its ranking of #2 out of 50 restaurants in Ouaga) convinced me that we had to try it out. And we were not disappointed! As a matter of fact, we’ve been there three times in the past two weeks, bringing a variety of friends subsequent to our initial trial visit.

There was hardly anyone there when we arrived several minutes after 7 o’clock in the evening. Probably because the place only opens at 7 p.m. In any case, there was lots of room for parking, something that was certainly not the case later on when we left. By that time, there were so many people and vehicles there that we had a hard time getting out. I made a note to myself to park with a better exit strategy in mind next time!

The entire restaurant is outdoors in a large open courtyard, which is accessed by walking through a decorative entranceway. Numerous eating areas are set up throughout the courtyard, some under the open sky and some under hangars where you can sit in case of rain (or because you’d like some light by which to read the menu :). The eating places under the hangars are also easier for the servers to access because they are on concrete pads instead of crushed stone and the servers move around the entire place on roller blades! No kidding!

At one end of the restaurant is a huge fireplace containing a blazing wood fire (I bet working there is really fun in the hot season!). In front of the fire, legs of lamb hang suspended on cords. A cook moves them around as necessary to achieve the proper degree of roasting and bastes them with their own juices, ladled from a long dripping pan underneath. Kathy & I are not fans of mutton, but since it was the house specialty, we felt we needed to at least try it. We ordered one to share. It arrived on a wooden platter along with a bowl of basting liquid, some mustard and some piment & pepper sauce. It was good, even without any of the condiments! The only thing we forgot to was to get a picture of one of us gnawing away on the thing. Of course, this would be for dramatic purposes only. We actually ate most of it using knives and forks. But we did take a picture of a friend doing this later on :)

Subsequently, we’ve also tried other food items, like lamb chops and fish kabobs. Kathy says the lamb chops are probably the best she’s ever eaten.

In the middle of the courtyard is a large concrete pad with a hangar over it. This is where the entertainment happens. Beginning around 8 p.m., there is live music featuring an electric piano, an electric guitar, and vocals. This is interspersed with a variety of different acts. So far we’ve seen jugglers, acrobats, and drummers. Very entertaining and a nice difference from the normal restaurant experience in Ouaga. So much so that we’re planning on going back again soon! Wanna come along?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Week Off in Ouaga

Kathy & I took some time off this past week. It sure felt good to sleep in, linger over our cups of coffee as long as possible, and leisurely read magazines or books without having to keep an eye on the clock. However, we also did something I’ve been wanting to do for a while: check out some of the different restaurants and guesthouses in the city. Not only does this give me a chance to indulge my desire for urban exploration and for being the first in my circle of friends and acquaintances to find something new & interesting, but it might also give me some ideas for our upcoming anniversary! How’s that for efficiency? :)

First, I looked up places on the Internet and plotted their locations on Google Maps. Then, armed with these visual directions, we headed out on the streets of Ouaga to find them. Some were easier than others. Ouaga has very few street names and even the local people rarely know them, so there’s not much use asking them for directions. The best I could often do was count the number of streets or blocks from a major intersection. Even then, we often ended up driving around and around until we found what we thought was the location and knocked on the courtyard gate. Quite a few had no signage whatsoever, making even the clients who found them on the Internet engage in a game of hide and seek to actually find their physical location! Heaven forbid you arrived in Ouaga at night and had to find the place in the dark!

Some places were just cheap dives. Some had once been nice, but were now past their prime. Most, however, were interesting in one way or another. And a few were outstanding. I’ll feature a couple of them in my next postings.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

To Catch a Thief

Over the past several months, we’ve been suffering from a series of thefts on our Centre in Ouagadougou. In most cases, it was just items of food from the common kitchens of some of the guesthouses. But in a few cases it was more serious: a significant quantity of cash and a couple of cell phones. And these were in otherwise locked apartments! So whoever it was had access to keys.

Initial suspicion, of course, fell on some of our local employees. We called several employee meetings to explain what was happening and to encourage them to report any information they might have to help solve the problem. We discovered that one of our employees was being careless with his keys and took steps to correct the situation, but the thefts continued.

A break came when a lady reported a theft of sweets from a room in her apartment. This narrowed our suspicions to a particular group of workers who, fortunately, were not regular employees but short-term contract workers. However, the trick was to catch them at it.

The most consistent thefts took place in the communal kitchens, so Kathy planted some food items there and by discretely checking on them at regular intervals during the day, we were able to determine that the thief tended to operate during lunch and siesta time. Finally, I determined to stake out one of these kitchens by concealing myself in a guestroom across the way, from where I watch discretely through a window.

On the appointed day, I installed myself on a chair by the slightly open window in the guestroom, prepared to put in the several hours ahead of me in watching to hopefully catch the thief in action. This, however, was nearly my undoing because the event happened much sooner and much more quickly than I could ever have anticipated!

After only 10 minutes of watching, I turned my head to look quickly around the semi-darkened room behind me in order to give my eyes a break. When I turned back, someone in a light grey outfit was already halfway into the kitchen! I hadn’t heard a thing! You can bet that I was watching intently for the person to reappear! I did not want to miss this opportunity to identify the culprit.

When he came out, it was a young man that I did not immediately recognize. However, he had a chunk of bread in his hand, one of the morsels Kathy had planted there the day before. Quickly and quietly, he closed the kitchen door and moved off. I debated whether or not to rush out and confront him, but lost the opportunity in the time it took me to have the thought. So I quickly left the room and made my way back up to the front of the Centre.

As I went, I caught glimpses of someone in a light grey outfit flitting among the buildings and vegetation opposite me. But every time I stopped to get a better look, the person also stopped, always just out of sight. I decided that my best bet was to go back to my office, from where I could get a broad view of the entrance to the Centre as well as the path the thief was likely to take to get there.

I watched for several minutes along the direction from which I anticipated the thief to come. But nothing happened. So I looked at the entrance. There he was! Evidently he had fooled me by switching from his intended path. I still did not recognize him, so I called the guard at the gate and asked who that young man was. It turned out to be the son of someone on one of our sub-contracted work crews. Telling the father about his son’s behaviour was not a pleasant task, but it had to be done. We asked that he not be allowed back on the Centre and the father did not hesitate to agree to this, declaring that he would deal with the boy at home.

Several days later, on a Saturday morning, we arrived on the Centre to do something and were surprised to see one of our Centre hosts there, the person who is responsible to deal with anything that comes up on the weekends. It turned out that he had been called by the guard on duty at the gate because the young man had come back saying that his father had sent him to check out something! However, since his name was not on the list of approved people to come on the Centre that weekend, the guard had insisted on checking his story. Good thing for us he did!

After the guard had made his phone call, the young man said he needed to go and pick up his bicycle, which was supposedly under repair nearby. He never came back. And when the Centre host arrived, he did a tour of the Centre wall to make sure the thief had not tried another way of entry. Outside the back wall, near where the communal kitchens were located, he spotted two young men on bicycles that fled as he approached. Chances were high that the thief had brought along some accomplices to whom he could throw things over the wall in one last, big, robbery attempt.

The lesson? It’s not enough to identify a thief and think that this will encourage him to mend his ways, or at least discourage him from attempting to try it again. There appears to be no shame in being discovered. Assume the thief will try again and take the necessary steps to make sure he doesn’t succeed!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Look Out! I'm Gonna Do Something Stupid!

The other day, Kathy was taking downtown a young couple that had come to Burkina to help us for a few months. Coming to an intersection with a red light, she slowed and stopped, prompting several young men selling phone cards, tissues, gum, and various other items to come towards her window in hopes that she might buy something. However, since she wasn’t interested, she put up both hands, palms out. We’ve learned that this is the most effective gesture for saying “No”. Shaking your head or holding up simply one hand does not work.

When the light turned green and she continued on her way, the young couple with her asked why she had put up her hands like that (give them credit for being more observant than many of our visitors!). This led to an explanation of the use of hand signals here in Burkina.

At this point, they came up behind a large truck travelling down the road. The truck had its right turn signal on, but the driver also had his left arm out the window, waving it wildly up and down. Kathy took advantage of the situation to explain: “For instance,” she said, pointing to the truck ahead of her, “this combination of signals means, ‘Look out! I’m going to do something stupid!”

Sure enough, the truck suddenly veered right, and almost immediately afterwards turned sharply left, right in front of Kathy, to do a U-turn in the middle of the road!

I guess you could say that she'd made her point!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Trip to Koudougou - Part 8

On our way back to Ouaga, Aristide told us about a Mossi chief in the town of Kokologho whose palace was a tourist attraction and worth seeing. So once we reached the town on the Ouaga-Bobo road, we made a few inquiries and found the place. For a village or even a small town, it was indeed an impressive structure considering that it was made of mud-bricks and cement!

Interestingly, the place would not even exist had the chief’s father not decided to turn from the tribal religion of his ancestors and become a Catholic. Traditionally, when a chief died, the place where he lived, no matter how grand, was left to go to ruin and the new chief (usually one of his sons) moved and built a brand new place from scratch. In this case, however, not only did the Catholic missionaries at the time help finance the building of the chief’s palace, but his son (the current chief) was able to take over this well-established place.

Upon arrival, we first had to negotiate a price with a guide, one of the chief’s ministers who would take us on a guided tour. Once this was arranged, we were allowed to enter the outer courtyard of the palace compound, with the condition that no photographs were to be taken. This outer courtyard was the place where the chief had meetings with his ministers and kept his cars. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the latter! One of these was exactly like my very first car, a powder-blue Volkswagen Super Beetle! It was also the place that contained the tomb of the previous chief, built like a large cement shrine.

From this point on, we were required to take off our shoes out of respect for the chief (whom we never actually got to meet, perhaps because it was Sunday?). Fortunately, all the floors and open spaces in the compound from this point on were cement and not bare dirt. Unfortunately, the cement in the open courtyards was pretty hot from the sun shining directly on it. Fortunately, I had socks on. Unfortunately, Kathy didn’t :( She found it increasingly difficult to walk across those open spaces from one location to the other without blistering her feet!

A large structure separated the outer courtyard from the inner courtyard. It had numerous rooms used for various purposes, one of which was a mini-museum of articles belonging to the previous chief and his wife. The first thing that struck us about this structure was how cool it was inside despite the numerous openings in the walls. This was explained partly by the thickness of the walls and partly by the thickness of the dirt and clay roof. Part of this structure had a second floor which was accessed by a very steep and narrow stairway. This was where the previous chief had his bedroom. From there, he could also walk out on the flat roof over the rest of the building for a 360 degree view of everything around him. The current chief, however, lived in a house he had built in the inner courtyard.

The inner courtyard was the living area of the chief and his family. Everything was noticeably clean and in good repair, something that is not always the case in family courtyards.

The most exciting event of the tour was the discovery of a small snake when we stepped outside the courtyard to see a reception area where the chief would meet with the local villagers at appointed times and hold festivals. Nearly everyone panicked, but a few of the men got rocks and killed it. People here are deathly afraid of snakes! Not all of them are poisonous, but many are, so they don’t take any chances!

Then, at last, we climbed back in the minibus and headed back to Ouaga.