I am jumping ahead and leaving the second 48 hours of my journey to Burkina Faso on the side so as to talk a bit more about what it has been like living in Ouagadougou for the last 10 days. (It’s a bit of a long one, I promise I’ll keep them shorter in the future!)
So first things first: the Dana you knew, with moderate to long, sometimes unruly hair is no more. As far as I can tell, men’s barber shops here do not actually have scissors, only razors, and thus has the country gone to task on my head to make me presentable for my placement with the Ministry of Agriculture (there is no such thing as men with even slightly long hair here, so it had to go). This is the shortest my hair has ever been, even if in the 4 days since it was cut, it feels like it has doubled in length already (in any case it seems longer in the picture then right when I got it cut)!
Now then, back to Ouaga. Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso, its largest city (1.5 million people, officially) and the place where I will be spending the bulk of my placement. Being stationed here is fairly distinctive for EWB: very few Junior Fellows (JFs, i.e. 4-month volunteers) spend any considerable length of time in the capital. Instead, they stay in smaller towns where they typically work with farmer unions (organisations paysannes) to build the unions’ capacity to provide quality services to their small-scale farmers. My work with the Ministry of Agriculture requires that I instead be based in the big city, and consequently you can expect my experience to be somewhat unique. Don’t worry though, to make sure that I don’t lose sight of the subsistence farmers for whom we are ultimately working, I am already headed on a village stay tomorrow!
In any case, life in Ouaga is not all that different from life in any city: there are many roads, a downtown area, running water in several households, markets… you can find pretty much whatever you are looking for and, for enough money, you can probably live a similar lifestyle to the one you might be used to in the West. Of course, that isn’t the lifestyle of most people here, nor is it mine.
My host brother, Nac, lives a few kilometres outside of downtown with one of his younger brothers, Kasum; their youngest brother, Idrissa, is one of EWB’s Burkinabe volunteers. They share a courtyard but their “apartments” are separate. Nac works in human resources at “Le Ministère de la function publique”, which oversees the other ministries, and he has a fairly comfortable apartment which includes a living room, a gas stove, a bedroom and a bathroom. Nak likes to fall asleep watching television, and so I’ve been fortunate enough to use his bed.
Running water of course does not equate to water you can drink here (at least not for us Nasara – spelling probably incorrect), nor does having a bathroom equate to having a toilet (and of course certainly not a washing machine!). Drinking water is thus usually bought in 500ml plastic pouches (or in bottles if you want to splurge) and bathroom breaks are taken at the latrine (i.e. in this case, hole in the ground), where I have yet to master my aim (pictures of this being possibly unsettling to some, take a look at me washing clothes instead). Food is usually bought from street vendors to bring home or at “Maquis” (a sort of informal restaurant) to eat out. With dirty flies buzzing about your food, often contaminated water being used to wash it and potentially unclean food-handlers, you can never be too careful about what you eat and how you eat it. I learned this the hard way by being confined to my bed for the better part of yesterday, immediately and violently rejecting out both ends anything I attempted to put through my digestive system.
The very first thing you notice when arriving in Ouaga, however, is not the risky food or the latrines, it is the roads. Outside of downtown, only main roads are asphalted, the rest being made up of the same red earth that makes up the ground everywhere else. Because this is the rainy season, heavy rains completely destroy these roads. When riding on the back of a moped (as JFs often do), you’re in for quite the bouncy ride and, more than likely, residual rear soreness. In fact, as far as I can tell, nobody has a car here; you see them in the streets and I have ridden my fair share of taxis, but I have seen very few actual households with their own car. Instead, everyone has either a moped or a motorcycle, and it is these that absolutely dominate the urban landscape. At anytime and anywhere, a helmetless rider is coming towards you, and if headed in the same direction, will probably offer you a lift.
Of all of EWB’s policies for its volunteers, wearing the helmet is the strictest: omitting to do so results in our immediate return to Canada at our own cost. Burkinabes find our helmets endlessly amusing, and can be made to understand only when we specify that it is a matter of insurance. Apparently, it takes a near-tragedy to realize that it is actually a matter of safety, as Nak found out when his brother Idrissa was in a motorcycle accident last night. As it is, his face was badly hurt and most likelypermanently scarred, but, because he was wearing a helmet, he is otherwise okay. People’s refusal to wear a helmet is just another example of how difficult creating seemingly obvious behaviour change can be, whether it be implementing safety rules like the helmet or whether it be guiding producers towards better management and long-term vision for their farms, as EWB is trying to do. Hopefully for Nak, seeing his brother escape a more serious injury will be enough to make him start wearing a helmet himself.
Alright, I’m off on my village stay, talk to you in a week!
Keep on keeping on,
p.s. For the reassurance of my probably-now-very-worried-family, my own helmet was bought in Toronto, has a face protector (unlike Idrissa’s) and provides serious protection.