Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Labour Relations in Burkina

At a recent meeting of our salaried employees, someone voiced a complaint concerning a former employee that had been laid off quite a number of months ago due to the closing of his particular department (he had been offered a job in another department, but had refused).  The plaintiff insisted that the administration should have formally made this person’s layoff known to all staff before it happened, and that the administration had been wrong not to do so.

I’m not sure what purpose it would serve to formally let everyone know that someone is going to get laid off or dismissed, but had I been at the meeting, I would have pointed out that the news of this employee’s upcoming layoff had been shared in a number of informal ways, including at regular staff meetings and in my weekly communications bulletin to all personnel.

In any case, three elected employee representatives came to speak to our Director of Administration on this issue, saying that the administration had been wrong not to formally inform all personnel of the former employee’s upcoming layoff.  They demanded that in the future, they be informed of such things.  Our DA said that this should not be a problem.  He would begin by making a formal announcement of the written warning that one of the elected employee representatives had received recently for being caught goofing off rather than doing his job.  A photocopy of the warning would also be posted on the public bulletin board outside the dining hall to make sure all staff were aware of it.

He was met with expressions of surprise and protests that this was not what they had in mind!  But our DA indicated that by their request, this was indeed among the kind of information they were asking him to make public.  However, according to Burkina labour law, information on an employee’s salary, disciplinary measures, and employment status (among other things) is confidential.  An employee is free to share this kind of information with others if he or she wishes, but the administration cannot formally publicize it.

Therefore, continued our DA, he was very sorry, but he really could not accede to this request by the employee representatives.  And to their credit, they did not argue the point further.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


After nearly two months of waiting, the books I’d ordered from Amazon UK finally arrived here in Ouagadougou.  I’d ordered them in the middle of June and it was now almost the middle of August, so I’d nearly given up on them.  In fact, on the day they arrived, I’d checked the Amazon UK website to verify that there hadn’t been a problem and that they’d actually been shipped.  Sure enough they had, with the anticipated arrival date in Burkina being listed as July 6!

All this got me to thinking that there must be a better way to get items like this to the regions and countries of the developing world where the postal system is not always as fast or reliable as what we’re used to in North America and Europe.  Not only had my package taken nearly two months to get here, but it had cost me a shipping charge of almost $20, which was actually more than the two books I’d ordered had cost together!  Surely, in today’s modern world, there had to be a delivery method that was faster, cheaper, and more reliable!

I’d already thought of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.  We sometimes use this method for various things, seeing as folks coming for short stays usually do not use all their baggage allowance and have room to carry extra stuff.  But the people making such trips are usually few and far between because I really don’t know that many people personally, and no one that I knew was coming from the UK anytime in the foreseeable future.

Then I thought of the Internet and the ability it gives people to connect, communicate, and collaborate on things.  What if someone were to set up an on-line database where people travelling to various locations around the world and not taking their full baggage allowance could register their trip, and people living in such places and wanting stuff delivered to them could go and search for possibilities, getting in touch via e-mail, Skype, chat, text message, or phone call to firm up the details?

For instance, suppose that when I was preparing to order my books, I went to the website to see who was coming to Burkina from the UK in June or July (and maybe even how much spare baggage allowance they think they will still have).  A search yields several possibilities and I email several of the most immediate to say that I have two books that weight approximately so much.  I quickly make arrangements with one person and get their mailing address, to which I have the books shipped (which would only cost me about $5 since it’s local shipping).  Of course, they can open the package to verify the contents once it arrives before placing it in their baggage.

Once they arrive in Burkina, we meet so that I can get my books and the person who brought them can get a pre-determined, fixed payment (maybe between $5 and $10) for their trouble, a win-win situation because I save some money and get my books more quickly, and the deliverer gets some extra money for something he had anyway (spare baggage allowance) and that didn’t cost him a cent.

No doubt, as on e-Bay, there will be some abuses (like the delivery people stealing the stuff for themselves or demanding more payment once they arrive), but such cases can quickly be weeded out with a reliability evaluation system like the one e-Bay uses.  Once a delivery person tries such a trick, they will never be trusted by anyone again and be blacklisted on the website.  Ditto for those who want stuff delivered but try to abuse the system by shipping illegal stuff.

Anyway, food for thought.  Anyone coming to Burkina in the near future?

Monday, August 1, 2011


After nearly two years of Kathy getting after me to make a BBQ, I finally did it.  You see, we can’t go to Home Depot, Zehrs, Canadian Tire, or Wal-Mart to buy a BBQ here.  If you want a grill to cook steaks, sausages, or hamburgers on, you’ve got to make it yourself.  To that end, we’d brought a nice set of enamel grill racks with us, but I had to draw a design for the BBQ and then get a local welder to make it (someday I’ll have my own welding machine to do stuff like this, but we didn’t want to wait THAT long!).
What finally pushed me to do it this time was Kathy’s statement that she had some nice sausages to BBQ for Canada Day... if only we had a BBQ to do it on :)  That was it.  I got out my paper, pencil, and tape measure, and started to sketch out a design complete with the appropriate measurements.  Then I took it to our friendly neighbourhood welder and gave him the sheet with the design, along with a verbal explanation.

Commissioning stuff to get made here, especially western-style stuff, is always an adventure because despite drawings and explanations, you’re never quite sure what you’re actually going to get.  If they’re not familiar with the thing you want them to make, they’re going to make up what they don’t know.  For this reason, I stopped by the welding shop each day to see how things were coming along.  Of course, since I can’t stand over him and watch every step he makes, by the time I come along, some things will already have been done and it’s too late to change it.

For instance, even though I hadn’t drawn it in, the welder decided to fabricate a tubular steel frame for the firebox.  Thus my inside dimensions became his outside dimensions, and the racks no longer fit snugly just inside the firebox (where they could be removed but otherwise not move) but now sat on top of it (where they could slide over and even off the BBQ.  So I had him weld a couple of steel stops in place.

And instead of using heavier angle iron for the legs as I’d put in my drawing, he built them out of light tubular steel.  This was good in the sense that it made the BBQ lighter to pick up and move around.  But when you opened the lid, the weight of the lid shifted the centre of gravity sufficiently to the rear of the BBQ to cause it to tip over backwards.  His solution?  Weld a long, narrow container near the bottom of the front legs in which I could pour some cement to provide the weight needed to keep the thing from tipping over.

Okay, so it’s not perfect.  But after it was painted black, it looked pretty good.  And it worked.  Next time, I’ll make some modifications.  But for now, it makes Canada Day sausages just fine :)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sorry, We Don't Have That

The other night, Kathy & I decided to try a new restaurant at the edge of the Ouaga 2000 (the ritzy area of Ouaga) called Restaurant Weebi (which means “woman” in a language of Niger).  This is a converted villa with outdoor seating and the bedrooms inside converted into private dining rooms.  The one downstairs is air-conditioned, but the two upstairs only have ceiling fans.  We decided to eat in the air-conditioned room.

The menu looked impressive, featuring pizzas (we saw the large brick oven for this purpose at the far end of the courtyard), African dishes like poulet bicyclette, poulet rabilé, tô and leaf sauce, rice and peanut sauce, etc., and regular dishes of steak, veal, chicken, and fish.  After some time of looking through it and trying to make our choices, Kathy ordered the escalope de veau (veal) and I ordered a pizza.  The waitress returned several minutes later.  “Sorry,” she said, “but the veal dish is not available.”  So Kathy ordered blanc de poulet (white chicken meat).  Several minutes later, the waitress was back again.  “Sorry, but we don’t have that either.”

“What DO you have?” I asked.  She said, “Steak, chicken, and fish.”

“Okay,” I replied, “then my wife will have the filet de boeuf with mushrooms and sauce.”  The waitress thought for a moment.  “I don’t think we have that either,” she finally intoned.

I looked at her.  “How would you like to go and get the chef?” I said.  “I’d like him to come and tell us exactly what on the menu is actually available!”

This appears to be an unfortunate characteristic of many Burkinabè restaurants, certainly when they first open, but often extending for some time past their opening date.  They offer an extensive menu that looks impressive... until you try to order something.  Then you find out that they don’t actually have everything listed on the menu.  And if you ask why, they’ll say that they plan to offer these things as clientele and interest in them builds up.

I don’t know about Burkinabè customers (maybe they're used to this and just want the regular old dishes anyway, so the fact that the more exotic ones aren’t available is no big deal), but this is not the way to gain expatriate customers like us who are usually looking for something different than the usual old dishes (which we can get in virtually any restaurant in Ouaga).  This was the third time in just over a month that we’ve run into this in new restaurants we’ve tried out.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I was pretty excited to find poutine on the menu in a new restaurant near the airport.  So I ordered it, my saliva glands already starting to work in anticipation of what promised to be a tasty meal on a nice evening out with Kathy.  Actually, this new restaurant had been constructed on the grounds of a former one called La Quebecoise, which had also served poutine (the only place in Ouaga to do so).  Imagine my disappointment when the waitress returned a few minutes later to inform me that the poutine was not available (although the restaurant had already been open for a number of months by this point).  I wondered how hard it could be to cook up some fries (which were already on the menu), and put some cheese and gravy on them?  In fact, I ended up choosing a couple more items on the menu that weren’t available yet until I finally hit one that was.

Back at the Restaurant Weebi, the chef finally came and although he was not terribly helpful (he appeared almost as clueless as the waitress), we eventually came to an agreement on something Kathy was prepared to eat and he was prepared to cook.  In the meantime, we tried to enjoy being alone and talking together in a nice, air-conditioned room with interesting pictures on the walls and a comfortable vinyl sofa, chairs, and coffee table in addition to the dining room table and chairs on which we were sitting.  And we did enjoy ourselves to some extent, although my pizza was rather dry because it was lacking in tomato sauce (there was some, but it looked like it had been spray-painted on) and Kathy’s meat was rather tough.  Until we got the bill and realized that we’d been charged an extra 5,000 FCFA (about $12) just for the use of the air-conditioned room!

Chalk one up for experience, but I don’t think we’ll be going there again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

About a Shirt

At a recent meeting in Kenya, I recognized someone that had attended an IT workshop on our centre in Ouaga a little while back.  So I greeted him.  “Hey!” he said, “Do you recognize this shirt?”  I looked at his shirt and a light when on in my head.  “Yes!” I said.  “I have one just like it!”

Then he proceeded to tell me his story.  At the beginning of nearly every workshop or seminar on our centre in Ouaga, I drop by at the beginning to introduce myself and welcome people to the centre.  He told me that he and his wife were there that day at the opening of the IT workshop and they never heard a word that I said.  They could not take their eyes off my shirt!  Then and there, they decided that they needed to get a shirt just like that!

In the following days, they spent all their spare time combing the streets and shops of Ouaga for this material.  Only a few days before their scheduled departure, they finally found the material at the Village Artisanal (Artisans’ Village).  After buying it, they then found a tailor and ordered the shirt made.  Which is how he ended up wearing a shirt exactly like mine that day in Kenya.

When we met several weeks later in Cameroon, we decided to both wear the shirt one day and pose as the ebony and ivory twins :)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In the Spotlight in Cameroon

It was Saturday night in Yaoundé and I didn’t just want to go back to my room.  A group of us from Burkina had arrived in Cameroon the night before for a week-long seminar that started on Monday.  So we had the weekend free.  After getting hooked up to the Internet, catching up on sleep, and wandering around the SIL Cameroon centre reliving some memories of a previous stay several years back, I was ready to stretch my legs and see some local scenery.

Walking down the street, I came upon a crowd gathered at the side of the road.  In fact, it was spilling out into the street so that approaching vehicles were constantly honking their horns to warn people to get out of the way.  The centre of attention was a guy with a microphone in front of a little roadside boutique with a banner announcing its grand opening.  For a while, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to sell something or preaching a sermon!  He was as animated as all get-out and used a lot of religious terminology.

I soon realized that I was the only white person in the crowd and figured that sooner or later, I would be singled out for attention.  So I avoided eye contact with the announcer as much as possible.  However, at one point, he invited a young man from the crowd to join him.  After a bunch of talking, he told the young man that God was going to bless him.  Whoever he shook hands with in the crowd would give him 1,000 francs (about $2).

Immediately, the crowd parted like the Red Sea in front of Moses, right towards me!  I quickly moved to one side, trying to blend in, but the crowd kept moving aside until I was left standing all alone.  The young man headed right towards me, followed by the announcer with his microphone, followed by a guy with a video camera.  After shaking my hand, the young man waited expectantly.  No one made a sound.  Finally he said that I was now supposed to give him 1,000 francs.

Well, I didn’t have 1,000 francs on me (I had a 5,000 franc note in my pocket, but wasn’t about to tell him that!), so I told him that I was sorry, but I didn’t have what he wanted.  He shook my hand again several times, no doubt hoping to prime the pump, but I kept apologizing and say that I did not have 1,000 francs to give him.  Finally he gave up.

At this point, the announcer grabbed my arm and tried to pull me front and centre with him!  But I dug in my heels and refused as politely as I could to go.  It was a great relief to me when he finally gave up too and carried on the show without me.  Whew!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter Break in Burkina

“This tastes simply awful,” Kathy grimaced after putting another chunk of hamburger into her mouth. “Here, try it!”

I looked at her in amusement and disbelief. “Are you serious?” I asked. “You’re telling me something tastes like crap and then you want me to actually try it?!!!” I laughed and shook my head. “No way, José!”

Disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get a day off in Banfora like we’d planned, we decided to take a day off at a pool somewhere in Ouaga. You know, do some swimming to cool off, lounge around with some magazines and books, eat a good meal that required someone ELSE to slave over a hot stove in hot season. But we didn’t want to go to the pools downtown in case more trouble started there. And we didn’t want to go to the pools in the south end of the city because they were too close to an army base and the presidential palace, both of which had been scenes of unrest recently. The Silmandé in the north end had a nice pool, but the food prices were astronomical. So we settled on the Ricardo, just down the road from the Silmandé.

The owner told us to make sure our vehicle was locked up tight in the parking area. “Had soldiers in here the other day,” he informed us. “They shot their machine guns into the air and demanded the keys to the vehicles outside. Fortunately, I wasn’t here, so the staff just had a key to the utility truck. The soldiers grabbed the truck and took off.” We locked our truck up tight. And I told Kathy to take the vehicle’s papers out of the glove compartment and put them in her purse so we’d have proof of ownership if it somehow was taken.

Picking a poolside table, we first ordered breakfast: Nescafé, ham & cheese omelettes, bread, and orange juice. The coffee was drinkable, but the orange juice tasted diluted, and the omelettes weren’t cooked right through. The cheese in them was pretty sharp stuff. I told Kathy that they had better omelettes at the Koulouba. She agreed but pointed out that we were not having breakfast at the Koulouba.

After that, some expatriates sat down at the table next to us. They were loud and smoked. Guess which way the wind was blowing? We moved to another table as far upwind as we could.

Following several hours of swimming, talking, and reading, we ordered lunch.  I ordered a fish dish.  Kathy ordered the deluxe hamburger.  No bun.   Kathy had eaten one patty and was into the second when she came out with the comment at the beginning of this post. “It’s like chewing rubber and about as flavourful,” she continued. “There’s no seasoning, no spices, no marinade, nothing. A sad excuse for a hamburger if I ever saw one!” She lathered the remainder in ketchup but even so was not able to finish it. I offered her some of my excellent fish dish, but she declined. Those of you who know her know why :)

About 3 p.m., a whole crowd of young Burkinabè men and women arrived. We figured that some local university or college classes must have gotten out, and the young folks came here to cool off. Pretty soon, they were yelling, running, diving, and splashing up a storm. We waited long enough for the pages of my book to dry out a bit before deciding to call it a day.

I had just enough time left to change the oil in our generator back at the house before it got dark... and the power went out... again.

Pretty hard to beat that for an Easter break, eh? :P

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Unrest in Burkina

It’s been an interesting week in Burkina. Just as things seem to be moving towards a resolution of the situation in Côte d'Ivoire, unrest appears to be increasing in Burkina. It began over a month ago with the student demonstrations in various parts of the country following the death of a fellow student as the result of beatings by police, leading the government to close all schools for a couple of weeks. Then when some soldiers were sentenced to prison terms for crimes against civilians, their comrades in arms decided to show their displeasure and disagreement by marching through the streets of Ouagadougou, firing their weapons into the air, looting businesses along the way, and eventually liberating their imprisoned colleagues. The same actions subsequently spread to other military camps around the country before things quieted down again.

The latest round of unrest began late in the evening of last Thursday (April 14) when members of the presidential guard decided to also voice their complaints and began firing off their weapons, protesting unsatisfactory living conditions, inadequate pay, and unpaid allowances. Unfortunately, they decided to do some of their shooting in the presidential compound, prompting the president, Blaise Compaoré, and his family to temporarily move to another location in the middle of the night for security reasons. However, several hours later, on Friday morning, the president was back in Ouaga to hold scheduled meetings with various military groups.

We heard very little of all this in our suburb of Ouaga, but a Burkinabè colleague that lives near a main road told me that he didn’t get much sleep Thursday night. Sometime after midnight, a truckload of soldiers pulled up on the road not far from his place and began firing their machine guns into the air for about 20 minutes (after which they probably ran out of ammunition). My colleague and his family lay on the floor of their house during the whole time. While firing weapons into the air is better than shooting horizontally at buildings or people, the problem is that bullets that go up must eventually come down. Just recently, a 14-year old girl died as a result of being hit by a spent bullet that pierced the roof and ceiling of her house while she slept in bed. In another case, a spent bullet struck a gas bottle, sparking a fire that destroyed a local business.

At work on Friday, we heard of unrest downtown and gunfire in various parts of the city, some of it close to our centre, so we decided to allow all staff to go home early. I was scheduled to take a colleague to the airport (which is in the downtown area) in late afternoon and, not having heard of any more incidents, loaded up the truck and headed off. Instead of the usual rush-hour jams, traffic was unusually light since schools and most businesses had closed for the day. The trip was uneventful, but when I arrived at the airport, I received a message forwarded from the French embassy on my phone warning people to avoid travelling in 4X4 vehicles since soldiers around the city were stopping and stealing them. This was obviously not the best time to tell me this! But I headed home again with my eyes peeled and arrived without incident. Life along the streets appeared to be going on as normal.

On Friday night, the president dissolved the civil government and replaced the heads of the army and the presidential guard. The general sense was one of relief that the president was still in charge and was making an effort to bring things back under control. There was also news that the grievances of the presidential guard were being addressed. However, that night, there was more shooting and looting on the part of the military. So on Saturday, hundreds of aggrieved merchants took to the streets of downtown Ouaga to protest the looting and destruction of their businesses. They torched the headquarters of the leading political party, attacked the Ministry of Commerce and torched vehicles nearby, and attacked the National Assembly building of the civil government, causing extensive damage.

In response, a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was imposed on the city. Things seem to be calm today, except in a military camp in the south of the country where soldiers were reportedly shooting and looting in the nearby town of Pô.

Do we feel in any danger? Not at all. But we take precautions by not doing any unnecessary travelling, avoiding the downtown area, and keeping our eyes open as to what’s going on around us wherever we go. Unfortunately, Kathy & I had planned to take advantage of Easter Break this week at the school where Kathy is teaching a health class to sneak in a few days of R&R and visiting language teams down in the southwest area of Burkina. Guess we’ll have to postpone that for another time :( However, we did go to a wedding yesterday! It’s nice to find things to celebrate, especially in such times as these :)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

San vs. Mossi 2-0

It’s Sunday evening and my friend Adama heads out from his house on his way to a meeting. He’s all dressed up in a nice West African boubou. A few hundred metres down the road, he sees a group of his neighbours sitting outside someone’s courtyard talking, so he stops to greet them.

“Hey, Adama!” one of them shouts out. “Now you’re properly dressed to play the role of the San chief!” Adama is a San and his neighbours are Mossi, with whom the San have a joking relationship. By saying this, they are not only making fun of him (implying that as an ordinary San man he has pretensions to be the leader of his people) but also of the San people (any ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry could be the leader of such a people!).

“Ah, no!” replies Adama. “You’re mistaken. I’m on my way to take the place of the Moro Naba!” The Moro Naba is the supreme chief of the Mossi people, the ethnic group that conquered all of eastern Burkina several centuries ago and subjected all the neighbouring people, including the San.

“You’d better hurry to get to the Naba’s palace,” continued Adama, “and be ready to welcome me in appropriate style. It just wouldn’t be right if I as your new leader arrived there ahead of you!”

And before they could think of a suitable rejoinder, he jumped in his truck and drove off.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Unrest in Burkina

Schools reopened on Monday across Burkina and students are back at school. However, unrest continues in the land of upright men. Not on the part of the students but on the part of the army. Military units in Fada, a city east of Ouaga, grabbed weapons and ammunition on Monday and, firing weapons and blocking streets along the way, went to free a comrade that had been imprisoned earlier this year for allegedly raping a 14-year old girl. Terrified citizens hid in their homes. The soldiers then made their way towards Ouaga, but then turned south towards Tenkodogo instead before returning to Fada.

Last night, army units in Gaoua in southwestern Burkina took to the streets, shooting and looting. There were also reports of shots fired in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second largest city.

Soldiers in Ouaga fired automatic weapons at the house of the mayor of Ouagadougou last night and then roughed him up to the point where he had to go to a clinic for medical aid for his injuries. The home of a senior army official was also torched.

This evening (Thursday), the commanding officer of the Burkinabè army issued a curfew from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Friday morning. The American, Canadian, and French embassies have all issued security alerts for their personnel and their citizens.

Other than that, all is peaceful here in Ouaga. Now if they would just stop these random power cuts! They're driving us nuts!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Just a Wee Bit of Excitement

“It was crazy! Stores and boutiques had been smashed and looted, and people were running all over the place trying to get away from the downtown area! I had a hard time getting out of there myself!” Waving his arms and hands to indicate how he had turned this way and that to find a way through, passing dozens of slower vehicles as he was able, our Services Manager described to me the scene he had encountered in downtown Ouaga when he had attempted to get a vehicle of one of our members serviced.

While we’ve not been going through some of the major upheavals that some of the North African countries have been experiencing over the past while, we have had our own bit of excitement recently. The past several weeks have seen student demonstrations throughout the country as a result of a fellow student’s death at the hands of police following several severe beatings. It didn’t help that the local authorities tried to say he had died of meningitis while his medical record indicated that he recently been vaccinated.

Protest marches organized by the students all over the country have often been characterized by tires burning in the streets, the torching of public buildings, and clashes between students and law enforcement personnel. Of course there are always bad elements that tend to attach themselves to these kinds of events and take advantage of them to go on a destructive rampage. As a result, the government has closed all public schools in the country, including the universities, something that has resulted in significant hardship for students (especially those from foreign countries) who have no place to go.

But the experience of our Services Manager was related to something different. It had begun on Tuesday evening near midnight when soldiers at two military camps in Ouaga started shooting off their weapons and demonstrating to express their displeasure at the sentencing of several of their comrades as a result of an incident between military personnel and civilians some time back. They took to the streets and began smashing stores and boutiques, gaining access to alcoholic beverages and making the situation even more unstable.

This morning, the International School of Ouagadougou and St. Exupery (the French school) both closed their doors and told their students and staff to stay home. The American, Canadian, and even French embassies issued security alerts, advising their personnel and citizens in Burkina to stay put, avoid unnecessary travel (especially in Ouaga), and take security precautions. The American embassy issued a dusk to dawn curfew for all its personnel. Around noon, rumours began to fly around that a curfew was going into effect immediately. We did some quick checking with the authorities and discovered that these were indeed just rumours. No curfew was being ordered. Nevertheless, numerous businesses and organizations closed their doors for the day and sent their personnel home. Things seemed to be calm at our end of the city, so we carried on with business as usual. Things are still calm this evening.

The President is out of the country at the moment, but we’re praying that those in authority will once more take charge and resolve the issues at hand so that peace and order will soon be restored. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Another Creative Income Generating Strategy

Ever get to the point where your fuel needle is pretty well on empty but you really don’t have time to stop and fill ‘er up? It can make for very stressful driving. Well, I thought I’d avoid that this time and fill up while I had the chance. It was a Saturday morning and Kathy & I were out cruising around in a part of town we’d been wanting to explore for a while. Suddenly I saw a gas station, remembered that I was running low on fuel, and pulled in to get the tank filled.

Several minutes and 35,000 FCFA (about $70 later), I pulled back onto the road and we continued our explorations. It was only after we’d already gone some distance that I realized the fuel needle was at just over the halfway mark. What? 35,000 FCFA should have put it up to the top! I stopped and shut off the engine, then restarted it, thinking that the gauge needed a fresh start. No difference.

Now I was puzzled. Where had all the fuel gone? Into my tank as far as I could remember because I was standing there watching the guy the whole time!

It wasn’t until we were nearly home again that a possible explanation occurred to me. When I’d first pulled into the gas station, the attendant had been filling another vehicle with that hose. I bet he then just turned the hose into my truck without resetting the pump, yakking away at me to distract my attention from the fact. Come to think of it, he did seem to fill the tank awfully fast. Normally it takes longer to put 35,000 worth of fuel in my truck.

And what makes me think this was deliberate? As the pump meter was approaching 35,000 FCFA, the attendant pulled back on the pump like you do when you’re trying to top off the tank, getting that last little bit in there without overflowing it. However, the tank was only half full at that point, so this must have just been for show. And he probably realized that if he filled it all the way up, the final charge would have been way over what I normally pay to fill my tank and I’d have wised up to the fact that he’d not reset the pump. But since 35,000 seemed reasonable to me, it aroused no suspicions. A pretty clever way to pocket some extra cash, don’t you think? And I can’t prove a thing.

Well, they say you’ve got to pay for your education. Haha, I certainly did that! But you can bet I’ll be watching the pump a little more closely from now on! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me! :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Another Friday Night

It’s been one of those weekends, and it’s not over yet. Last night being Friday night, Kathy & I had planned to go out for dinner at a new place we saw a few weeks back in the Ouaga 2000 area of town. For some reason that now escapes us, we thought it would be a Mexican restaurant and I was really looking forward to it. As we drove up to it and had a closer look, we realized that it wasn’t. But since we were here, we thought we might as well check it out anyway.

The hot season has started here in Burkina, so when we walked into the first large room inside the front doors and saw that all they had were a few ceiling fans to blow the hot air around, we were not impressed. However, the server quickly showed us to another room that had air-conditioning, which he immediately turned on. So far so good.

The menu featured a lot of African dishes, so I thought I’d try one of those. I ordered half a grilled chicken with tô (a stiff starchy porridge made of corn flour, a village staple in Burkina). The server asked me what I’d like for an accompaniment (in most Burkina restaurants, things like potatoes and other vegetables like beans, peas, or carrots that we would consider part of the meal are extra). I looked at him with puzzlement. “Doesn’t it already come with tô like it says in the menu?” I asked? “Yes,” he replied, “but what would you like for an accompaniment?” I didn’t argue with him. I just ordered some green beans.

After half an hour or so, the meal finally came. I received a dish of chicken pieces in a tomato and onion sauce, and a small plate of green beans. Then Kathy got her meal. I waited, expecting the tô to arrive at any minute. It didn’t. So I finally started eating. The tô never did arrive. And I didn’t pursue the issue because at that point, if they had to prepare the missing tô, the chicken would be cold by the time I got it. So what happened? Did someone on the restaurant staff intercept it and eat it before it got to me? Did they forget it? Did they think that I had ordered green beans instead of tô? Who knows. And while the chicken and sauce were good, I thought I had ordered grilled chicken...

Then came the bill. Yup, you guessed it. I got charged for grilled chicken and tô. But by then, haha, Kathy & I were laughing so hard about the whole thing that we just paid up. I’m not sure I could have eaten all that tô anyway (it’s a pretty heavy food). And we did get a good story out of the experience :)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Burkina's Joking Relationships

One afternoon last week, one of my Burkinabè colleagues entered a government building, walked into an office and said to the secretary (whom he did not know), “Hello! I’m your boss and I want you to drop everything else right now and get me a document that I need.” She looked at him with an expression of distinct annoyance, ready to retort and put him in his place. Who did he think he was ordering her around like that?!!!

But then she hesitated... “Are you a Samo?” she asked. “I don’t know about that,” he replied, “but I do know that I’m your superior and you need to do what I tell you immediately!” Smiling broadly, she set aside her work and went to find my colleague the document that he had requested!

Ever since we first came to Burkina in the late 90s, we’ve been aware of the special joking relationships that exist between various ethnic groups in the country. The Mossi and the Samo, the Bissa and the Gurunsi, etc., etc. It seems that these relationships developed between ethnic groups in close geographical proximity as a way of diffusing the tensions and strife that occur. The joking often takes the form of an insult or an attitude of superiority, with a member of one group calling a member of the other group his “slave” and ordering him to do some menial task.

Interestingly, it works! The tensest of situations can be easily diffused if the protagonists realize that they are members of ethnic groups that have a joking relationship. Once the insults begin, people begin laughing and the situation eases.

Of course, a joking relationship isn’t just useful in situations of tension or conflict. It’s also useful in everyday life, especially if one needs to deal with the personnel of government ministries that are not normally known for their efficiency or attitude of customer service. Thus my colleague, being a Samo, noticed that the name of the secretary was Ouédraogo. She was obviously a Mossi, with whom the Samo have a joking relationship. So he immediately adopted an arrogant superior attitude and proceeded with his request in the manner described above. And he got his document. In record time too :)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Student Demonstrations

On Wednesday, I drove a colleague down to the Ghanaian border. She had to be there at 10 a.m. to meet someone who was going to take her on to Tamale. Knowing that there was road construction happening along that route, I said that we’d better leave a little earlier than normal. So at 7 a.m. we were on our way out of Ouaga and headed south.

We were nearly an hour late arriving at the border. About two thirds of the way down, at a town called Noberé, we ran into a huge crowd of students marching along the road. They were protesting the recent death of a fellow student in Koudougou, another town northwest of Ouaga. The student apparently died after being repeatedly beaten by local police. We found ourselves in the middle of several hundred students who walked slowly, often directly in front of our vehicle, and stopped occasionally to chant the name of their deceased colleague. A number of them carried rocks in their hands and eyed us with hostility. So we began smiling and waving and even rolling down the window to talk with several of them. Nearly everyone smiled and waved back. I drove slowly and ever so carefully so as not to hit anyone and provoke an incident.

About a kilometre (and half an hour) later, several of the students with whom we had been talking began to encourage the ones ahead of us to move aside and let us pass through. Thus we were eventually able to get past the demonstration and continue on our way. I wished I had a picture to show you, but didn't dare pull out my camera at the time!

Not all the student marches have been so peaceful. A march in a town further north (Ouahigouya) turned violent, resulting in numerous public buildings, including police headquarters, being set on fire and burned. The government has suspended all school classes in the entire country for the time being.

A march in downtown Ouaga today turned nasty, with students burning tires and destroying property. Riot police pursued them into local neighbourhoods, firing tear gas. We’ve been advised to not go anywhere near the downtown area today. Well, maybe I’ll finally catch up on my e-mails at the office!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Romantic Candlelight Dinner

Kathy & I finally found time for a romantic, candlelight dinner this past Friday evening. But we didn’t plan it that way. We were supposed to go out to dinner with another couple. But somehow we miscommunicated. When I called to confirm on Friday afternoon, they apologized and said that they’d misunderstood and already made plans to go out with some other people. *sigh*

Well, no use wasting a good Friday night, right? So Kathy & I just planned to go out somewhere on our own. I’d had my eye on a place called La Cave du Petit Paris in the west end of the city since I’d found it on the Internet last summer. I also have a Burkinabè friend that works there as a waiter and promised him that we’d drop by soon.

The romantic atmosphere began building (of course I’m being facetious!) as we left home, turned onto the main road into town, and noticed that the power was out in the area we were driving through. Normally, it’s our section of the city, outside the ring road, that gets the cuts. But this time we had power and the main part of the city was out. There was no electricity all the way down Charles de Gaulle Blvd into town. Driving around the old Presidence, the lights were out all along the Avenue de l’Independence to the Rondpoint des Nations Unies and past. We kept going, certain that the power couldn’t be out all the way to the west end of the city. We were wrong. The only place that had power was the FESPACO headquarters. You can bet they weren’t going to let a little thing like a power cut spoil their opening night!

Since there were no streetlights, we had a heck of a time finding the correct turn-off. Fortunately, the main road was open again even though construction wasn’t yet finished, and we didn’t have to wind our way through a maze of backstreet detours first. As we drove up the street the restaurant was on, we kept hoping that it was one of those establishments that had a backup generator. Wrong again. No lights out front or anywhere in sight. Should we even bother? Would it even be open? Kathy insisted that since we were here, we might as well check the place out. So we parked and tried the front door. It opened.

I couldn’t help being struck by the irony of this situation. One night last week, I came home to find the power out. I suggested that we go out for supper somewhere in a part of town that still had power. But Kathy said no. She was determined to finish preparing the meal she’d been working on. Never mind that the generator backfired twice as I was trying to start it. The first time it yanked my hand back into the machine and banged it up pretty good. The second time I managed to let go and watched the pull-cord handle get shattered into little pieces. So on this night, when the power is on at home, we decide to go out and have supper at a place that had no power!

But this is where the romantic, candlelight dinner part comes in. At least until the food arrived. Then I had to use the flashlight on my cell phone so that we could see what we were eating!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cross-Cultural Living 101

It’s lunchtime and the triangle has been rung to let the members of the group attending a conference on our Centre know it’s time to eat. In the dining hall, places have been set and food laid out for eight people at each table. As they arrive, the conference participants serve themselves. And soon the food is all gone. The only problem is that not everyone has arrived yet! All the food was eaten by the first handful of people to get there!

Welcome to Cross-Cultural Living 101 :) This recently happened on our Centre here in Ouagadougou, and reminded us that people of different cultures approach things differently. Westerners coming to such a meal would look at how much food was on the table, assume that’s all there was, divide it by the number of place settings, and take the proportionate amount for themselves, assuring that enough was left for the remaining diners coming to the table. Most Burkinabè, however, will look at the food on the table and assume that since the food has not been served on individual plates, everyone can eat as much as they like and more will be brought for those coming after.

Unfortunately, our kitchen had prepared the amount of food in accordance with western standards. The organizers of the conference had ordered a certain number of meals at a certain price and the kitchen had bought the necessary supplies and cooked accordingly. But then they had served it to Burkinabè in a manner that communicated that everyone was free to eat as much as they wanted. Needless to say, this clash of cultures resulted in a very awkward situation and a number of hungry and very unhappy people!

The moral of this story? In Burkina, don’t be late for meals!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mon Voyage à Tombouctou

During our last long stay in Canada, I liked to point out (in our various presenta-
tions) that we live and work not too far from a place that is (in English-language cultures at least) considered a metaphor for an exotic place far, far away: Timbuktu. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not some place in Asia or the south Pacific. It’s just over the northern border of Burkina, in the neighbouring country of Mali.

For a while, we thought of making a trip to see this famous place. But after talking to colleagues who did so, we decided that it wasn’t worth it. There really doesn’t seem to be much worth seeing there. While in the past it was an important centre for trade and learning (it boasted one of the first universities in Africa and was referred to as the “Athens of Africa”), today it seems to be little more than an impoverished shadow of its former self, a large town of mostly mud houses and roughly 32,000 inhabitants, relying on its historic fame, its UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site, and its international airport to attract tourists.

However, when I recently came across a French book called, “Mon Voyage à Tombouctou” by Jean-Marc Pineau, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be at least an armchair tourist. It turns out that the author is a descendent of René Caillié, an unusual Africa-explorer who won fame and fortune as being the first white man of modern times to have visited Timbuktu (in 1828) and returned to tell the tale. He did this by observing not only Rule #1 of Africa-exploration fame (Go someplace interesting) but also Rule #2 (Get out alive) and Rule #3 (Get to a publisher!). Using his illustrious ancestor’s book as a guide, Pineau retraced his original journey of nearly 2,000 kms, westward from Boké near the coast of Guinea, through the north-west corner of Côte d’Ivoire, and then northwards into Mali and on to Timbuktu in as much the same way as possible, mostly on foot and by pirogue.

René Caillié was not actually the first to successfully reach Timbuktu. That distinction belongs to Major Alexander Gordon Laing. Laing, however, failed to observe Rule #2 (after which, of course, it is impossible to observe Rule #3). But the fact that he perished before he published wasn’t his fault. Following an arduous crossing of the Sahara Desert from the north, during which he suffered incredible hardships, including severe sickness and an attack on his caravan by Tuareg raiders in which he was wounded dozens of times and lost his right hand, he finally arrived in Timbuktu... only to be murdered (by his guide it seems) shortly after leaving the city again.

What made Caillié an unusual Africa-explorer was his youth (he was born in 1799 and began his first attempt when he was only 16!), his eventual method of both preparing himself for the trip (he learned Arabic and Islamic customs & religious practices) and of carrying it out (as a Muslim pilgrim with local caravans and guides rather than via a foreign expedition with soldiers). These last two strategies also contributed significantly to his success. Nevertheless, he also endured severe hardships on the journey, including a five-month convalescence in Côte d’Ivoire where he suffered with an advanced case of scurvy. Not fun.

Pineau writes that Caillié’s motivation for the trip came from a love of exploration and adventure as a result of reading Robinson Crusoe. What he fails to mention is that the Paris-based Société de Géographie at the time was offering a 10,000 franc reward to the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu, believed to be a rich and wondrous city (which it no longer was). In any case, Caillié achieved his objective, claimed the reward, published his travelogue, and gained fame & fortune.

Unfortunately, he did not live very long to enjoy it. Only 10 years later, in 1838, he died as a result of the hardships and diseases he had experienced during his African travels.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The U-Bend of Life

The cover of the Special Christmas Double Issue of The Economist (Dec 18-31) caught my eye recently. In big bold letters, it proclaimed “The Joy of Growing Old (or why life begins at 46)”. As Kathy & I are both now at the beginning of our fifth decade of life, I was intrigued enough to buy the issue in order to read the article inside.

Well, okay, I admit it... I like The Economist and would probably have bought it anyway :) But the article, entitled “The U-Bend of Life” was a bonus point. Here’s how it starts out:

“Ask people how they feel about getting older, and they will probably reply in the same vein as Maurice Chevalier: ‘Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.’ Stiffening joints, weakening muscles, fading eyesight and the clouding of memory, coupled with the modern world’s careless contempt for the old, seem a fearful prospect—better than death, perhaps, but not much. Yet mankind is wrong to dread ageing. Life is not a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death. It is, rather, a U-bend.

When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”

I’m not sure I like the drain-pipe analogy of the U-bend (why couldn’t they have used a picture of a mountain road?)... but I guess it’s a good way to describe the phenomenon.

The conventional view of life, based on the “seven ages of man” model first outlined in the 12th century, and later popularized by Shakespeare in his play “As You Like It” in the early 1600s, has the curve going the other way. Adults increase in stature, wealth, experience, and happiness until roughly middle age, after which life becomes a downhill slide to the grave. However, studies first undertaken in the early 1990s began to put this image into doubt. And subsequent studies in various disciplines appear to confirm that in general, life is a U-bend rather than an arch, with people getting happier and enjoying life more as they pass the emotionally low point of middle age.

Several reasons have been postulated for this. One is the effect of emotional experiences at various stages of life. Stress from increasing responsibilities generally begins to rise during the early 20s and continues until middle age, after which it tends to fall sharply. Worry often peaks in middle age and then declines. Middle age, for various reasons, is often accompanied by increased feelings of sadness, which then subside with additional years. Feelings of anger tend to decline with age.

Another reason offered is the impact of external circumstances. For example, people in their 40s often have teenage children. The low point of middle age could be due to having to share living space with angry or rebellious adolescents. On the other hand, older people may be more content because they tend to be richer and more materially secure than middle-aged folks still burdened with mortgage payments and their children’s post-secondary educational expenses.

However, even when controlling for factors such as material possessions and security, employment status, and family circumstances, the U-bend is still there. In fact, even when taking cultural differences into account, the pattern still appears, though the age at which the low point of life is reached often differs somewhat. For instance, a study of people in 72 countries shows that the Swiss reach their most miserable period of life at age 35, while the Ukrainians don’t get to this point until they are 62. However, on average, most people tend to be least happy in their 40s and early 50s.

According to the article, the main reason why people tend to get happier following the misery of middle age appears to be internal. Studies show that older people generally have fewer fights and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, less prone to anger, and better at accepting misfortune. As they come closer and closer to the end of their life, they get better at living for the present and focusing on things that truly matter. They come to accept their strengths and weaknesses and learn to be satisfied with what they are able to achieve rather than continuing to strive to satisfy ambitions they can no longer reach.

All in all, this is very encouraging for folks my age! First of all, it means that we probably won’t get any more miserable than we currently are. We’re already at the bottom of the drain pipe :) And secondly, thank God, it’s all uphill from here!

As for all you younger folks... well, hang in there. The bottom of the drain pipe is coming, but things will get better... eventually :P

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Creative Income Earners

Like virtually every city we’ve lived in or visited, Paris has a variety of creative income earners. These range from passive to active and fall into several categories, each with preferred locations for their work.  It's a group of people that I sometimes find disturbing, but almost always interesting.

First, there are your basic mendicants. We saw both men and women involved in this activity, usually on the streets or in areas where tourists tend to congregate. Interestingly, the men tended to be passive, just sitting on the sidewalk or on a doorstep with a paper cup in front of them, hoping that passersby would drop in a few coins. I couldn’t help but thinking that this must be a cold line of work at this particular time of the year! I got cold just looking at them! And I wondered, considering the prices of things in Paris, how they could make enough money to even eat with this activity. One enterprising fellow just around the corner from our apartment, however, positioned himself in what I thought was a rather strategic location: right beside a bank machine :) On more than one occasion, I saw people put something into his cup after withdrawing money from the machine. Smart guy!

Another creative fellow worked in the area around Notre Dame Cathedral. He was an older man who sat with two cute puppies in his arms. The animals, of course, attracted the attention of the tourists, and occasionally brought in money too. In fact, several people wanted to take pictures of him and an offering appeared to be the price of the photo. I discovered this when I attempted to take a better picture of him than I’d already managed to get when he wasn't looking. He pointed a big black umbrella in my direction and opened it just at the moment that the shutter clicked :)

Prior to Christmas, I also saw passive women mendicants along the Champs Elysées. Unlike the men, these appeared to be exclusively immigrants rather than a mixture of immigrants and local people, though I must admit I was just guessing from appearance. Sitting or kneeling in the middle of the wide sidewalk area, often with hands folded as if in prayer, they waited for passersby to place an offering in the paper cup in front of them. With a chilly wind whistling down the avenue, I found myself again wondering how they could stand the cold for any sustained period of time!

Some women, however, were active. These were invariably in areas frequented by tourists and approached people asking if they spoke English. If the reply was affirmative, they whipped out a card in English saying that they needed money for one thing or another. I never watched long enough to see if they had cards in other languages in their inventory, but suspect they must have.

Another group of mendicants frequented the subway trains. We only encountered one woman doing this. She was a young lady who claimed to be a student trying to finish her studies. She announced that she had a part-time job, but that this was insufficient to meet her needs. If you couldn’t give money, restaurant or store coupons were also welcomed.

However, most of the subway income earners were men. Their stories were virtually always identical and made me wonder if they belonged to a group who sponsored this kind of activity, provided basic training, and then required its members to pay a fee or a regular part of their income for the right to work on a given subway line! Each man invariably had three children and a wife that he needed to house and feed. He would work his way from car to car, beginning his speech after the train got going again by first of all apologizing for disturbing people and then laying out his situation. Following his speech, he’d walk down the aisle with a paper cup in hand, looking for handouts. I rarely saw anyone give anything to these folks. Fortunately these men were not aggressive, simply moving on unless someone extended a hand with a coin in it.

And then there were our favourites: the entertainers! These worked almost exclusively on the subway, perhaps because it was warmer there. I only saw one act that took place outside, a group of young men doing dance and acrobatic moves to music on the Champs Elysées. On the subway, we heard a singer, a violin player, and a trio of which two members played accordions and the third a saxophone. Let me tell you, these guys were good! I wasn’t the only one who plunked a few Euros into their cups.

And the moral of this story? While it’s possible to earn a living doing nothing if you approach it strategically (like the guy at the bank machine), you’re more likely to be successful if you can offer something people want (like a photo of an old guy with two cute puppies) or something they appreciate (like the entertainers). Food for thought, anyway :)