Life in Ouagadougou

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!)

Where is my hair!?

Burkina Dana's new look

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.

Burkinabes are serious when asked to pose

Nac standing in his courtyard

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.

Hand washing clothes

An unusual practice for a man in Burkina, except for underwear which is strictly "do it yourself"

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.

A typical night shot with motorcycles

So I know the picture is terrible, I forgot to do it during the day and this the best I could do in time for the post (You get the idea though, right?). Will update next week!

Nac on moto with Dana in tow

So we're clearly stationary in this picture, but the one in movement is unfortunately blurry. Also, what you see behind us is typical road.

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.


About dbgiacobbi

I am a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders Canada, spending 10 months in Burkina Faso. I work with an agricultural college (Centre Agricole Polyvalent de Matourkou) and a rural development engineering school (l'Institut du Développement Rural). My idea of development is helping people in Burkina Faso Achieve their potential follow their own vision for themselves, for their school and for their country.
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6 Responses to Life in Ouagadougou

  1. TC says:

    This is great reading — Dana Mailer wins.

  2. Allison says:

    Thinking of you.

  3. Danielle says:

    Safety first Dana!
    What makes the earth red? Is it the oxidization (like back east in PEI) or are there other reasons?

    • dbgiacobbi says:

      I’m not sure, but it’s like that everywhere I’ve been! The soil itself is quite different than what we have in Quebec, but I don’t know about PEI (last time I went was about 15 years ago). Apparently red clay in general is due to oxides, so I don’t think here would be any different; if I find out more, I’ll let you know!

  4. Cynthia says:

    Hi Dana,

    By now you are back from your village stay. We look forward to hearing about your experience there. Sorry to hear about your digestive upset – hope you have meds with you.

    Your hair looks great – authoritative, but still very handsome. Ashley likes it!

    Quite an arduous trek to Burkina but how wonderful that you got to experience Istanbul and Cairo. Travel is truly one of the best forms of education.

    Your living arrangements sound very challenging (at least to some of us). What kind of food is eaten? A bathroom without a toilet? So what is in the bathroom? Washing clothes by hand is not so bad but having to relieve oneself in a hole in the ground – not something I could do. By the way, does each apartment have a latrine or is it a communal facility? We are so lucky – I can’t imagine life without clean running water, uncontaminated food and drink and yup, a toilet! You mention that your host has a television – what kind of programming does he watch?

    Glad to see that EWB insist on volunteers wearing helmets. From your description of the roads, I imagine accidents are common. Of course, in terms of convincing Burkinabes to wear helmets, I suppose they have the same attitude as many other people throughout the world – they don’t think something is going to happen to them. Look at how many people here still bike without helmets or talk on their cell phones or text while driving or drink and drive…………By the way, what about alcohol use – do they drink?

    Well Dana, I hope you are feeling better soon. Take care of yourself and keep us posted. We are so proud of what you are doing. We love and miss you.


    • dbgiacobbi says:

      Hello Godmother! Glad you and Ash like the hair, it wasn’t a matter of a choice, but now that it’s done, I don’t mind it at all!

      I do indeed have a full stock of meds but there’s only so much one can do. The really potent stuff just kills everything in your stomach (good and bad) and then leaves you at risk to get sick again soon. My stomach is now pretty much on the upswing, although I’m still not eating anywhere near as much as back home, though last weak was challenging with low-energy levels because of insufficient food consumption (considered the strong stuff but managed to stay off it in the end).

      Food is okay, but that’s really probably the biggest thing I am homesick about right now, especially with the upset stomach. Lots of rice and other starchy foods, and sauces usually involving either peanuts or tomatoes, or some beans in the rice. I’m also having considerably more meat than is regular by Burkinabe standards, but it’s not wasted: we eat a lot more of the animal than back home (like, pretty much all of it) which can sometimes be a little offsetting (though not too much).

      The living arrangements are basically much more luxurious than most other EWB volunteers would usually have. The bathroom has a sink, shower and drain – the main criterion appears to be the drain. As for the hole in the ground, it isn’t that bad save for two things: first, it is outside, so when you have the runs in the middle of the night, and it is the rainy season and so there happens to be a storm outside, you are SOL, so to speak; second are the flies, which, if you can time yourself right are barely present in the evening (though then you might have to contend with the darkness), but are veritably cloud-thick in the morning (side-project: lifespan and livelihood of a fly that lives and dies around a latrine). The running water in Ouaga is effectively clean for the locals, and I’ve just recently started to drink it in small quantities myself as well (based on the evidence, my stomach problems are fairly certainly unrelated to this), it’s just a question of unfamiliar bacteria.

      Alcohol is a funny thing here, since a lot of people are Muslim. In Ouaga, a lot of them still drink though, and I would say, based on informal discussions rather than real stats, that drinking and driving is quite common here.

      Hope that satisfies your curiosity for just a little bit, I’ll try to write more on some of these themes in future posts!


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