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 :)