Friday, September 01, 2006

Summer Time

Since my last entry was at the end of May, and I haven’t written anything all summer, this entry will be about “summer” and how it was spent.

Generally June to September is slow in Burkina. There are two reasons for this; one it is the rainy season and activities on the field are limited due to weather conditions and road blockages, secondly it is vacation time. In fact most offices are closed during the month of August.

As for what I have been doing: lots of office work; report writing, verifying budgets, random meetings… definitely not as exciting as going to the field and interacting with our beneficiaries. On the positive note, like others I was also on vacation for the first two weeks of August and visited some other West African countries, namely Senegal and Mali.

Senegal located on the coast of Atlantic Ocean is so far the most beautiful country that I have visited in West Africa. Dakar, the capital city, is said to be the Paris of Africa with French style architecture, narrow streets, colonial houses…However, sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re still in Africa, high-rises in the business district and lots of ‘Tubabs’ (white person in local language) in town, less women wearing traditional clothing and cars and traffic all over the place.

After spending few days in Dakar and getting mugged almost twice (don’t recommend walking alone at night time or carrying valuables) we headed to the southern part of Senegal, passed through Gambia and reached the tropics of Casamance.

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting il de Goré, an island that is said to be the first entry point of European settlers in West Africa and the largest trading port for slavery in the region. This is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Although, they could have done a better job of preserving the site, it was still interesting to see some of the old and historical buildings such as ‘maison des esclaves’ (this is where slaves were kept with no food or water till they were shipped as “can of sardines” to the new world) and reading about the horrendous realities of slavery that took place during colonialism of Africa.

Another highlight was a bike trip that I took in the Casamance region to visit the surrounding areas, lush and green with amazing birds and very friendly people. I was even more excited when I stopped in a village to have lunch with a family and watched TV that was operating on solar energy!

Mali was the next stop. Although it was my third time in Mali, I was still fascinated by the rich culture and various flavours that this country has to offer. There is a sense of mystery and undiscovered truth about Mali. A mixture of tribes with some still living their traditional lives makes it one of the most exotic places that I have ever been too. But the most interesting part for me was interacting with the locals and going beyond the exotic surface to discover that they are just people like myself with similar needs. Unfortunately being a tourist makes your interactions with the locals very different compare to being a resident in the area. Taking local transports is a great way to be less of a tourist while travelling as the ride is often long (normally two or three times longer than what you would expect!!) and after the first thirty minutes they generally forget that you are a white person in the car and interactions continue as if you’re not there, the laughing together, the crying babies, the loud and intense discussions that you have no idea what they’re talking about…These transports carry anything from chicken to vegetables to human beings and are packed to an extend where its hard to breath. It could be very exhausting but at the same time it gives you an opportunity and a window to the lives of the local people in the region which I appreciate a lot more than being a passing by tourist.

Besides vacation, August was also mid-way to my work here in Burkina and I have spend abit of time reflecting on what I have been doing, and what I need to be doing next as well as thinking about international development in general and the role of westerners in it. Well, it hasn’t been easy to arrive at a solution. I was recently asked what I thought was the most impact that westerners could have overseas (in international development). I am going to end this entry with my answer to that question so to let you know abit about my thoughts on development in Africa.

"This is really tough to answer! Being in the national office, I have had the opportunity to see ‘westerners’ walking in and working in different areas of the program. I have seen their interactions with my team and some of them have impressed me with the work that they have done (and some have been disappointing). However, the ones who have impressed me are normally consultants with years of experience and some have lived in Africa for the past 10-15 years. They are very credible and have high influence on my team. But they also understand the culture, the country and the systems within the country. Yet, there are other ones who do not have a great understanding of realities of the program, and often do not pay attention to the concerns of the team. Unfortunately they seem to be the most powerful ones due to the position they occupy and that often makes me frustrated. What if this westerner in his powerful position was replaced with a Burkinabe leader? Why shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t it be a capable Burkinabe leader deciding steps to reduce poverty in his country? Why is it the role of this westerner to come from somewhere else and tell people what to do here? Unfortunately, Africa seems to be dependent on westerners not only financially but also in “show me the right way” kind of attitude and this I believe has been brought forth by westerners themselves. From colonialism and slavery to today’s interaction with Africans, westerners have projected an image of “I am better than you and therefore I know more than you”. This seems to be ingrained in Africa and it might take a long time to change this mentality and make Africa believe in itself. It’s interesting to compare however Africa’s perspective of westerners with that of other developing countries, Iran for example. Iran seems to be the opposite of the pole where westerners are portrayed as evil and that we should not allow any influence from the west. Although, this is also going to the extreme, Iran has been able to manage itself. So, I am not really sure what the solution is but I do know that I as a westerner do not want to present an image of superiority by claiming to know the right way. Who knows what the right way is anyways? We often talk about ending poverty, yet poverty I believe has different forms. While Africa might be poor in having access to infrastructures that we, westerners, have enjoyed for years, we are also poor in what is rich in Africa, solidarity. So, at this point while I am still learning, I see my role in exchanging my experiences and to share what has helped me in different areas that could possibly be of help here in addition to learning from African practices that can help me and my country. Yet, I do not claim to know more. In working with some of those experienced consultants, I have realized that I have a long way to go before claiming I know something. I don’t know if I answered the question, but I guess I can say that I agree with Jeffrey Sachs (author of The End of Povety)in that Africa can benefit greatly from financial resources of the West."

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Out to the field!

The month is flying by!! So far I’ve been out of the office for most of it.
We have completed the installation of our first water network in the east. I have been following the activities in Sualigo (village where this is installed) along with technicians on the field. This water network has so far been one of our major costs and it’s a cost that we want to reduce to be able to install more of them in more villages with the budget that we’ve been given. Ironically, when Guillaume and I went to a party at the Canadian Ambassador’s house, I saw a very similar chateau d’eau in his yard right next his cool and fresh water pool! This was difficult to digest as I realized how easily he can have this nicely constructed chateau d’eau right there in his house while a program like ours and a village like Sualigo with a population of more than 2000 people struggles to put a similar one in place.
Another field mission and perhaps the most interesting of all for me so far was ten days spent in three villages near Dedougou (west of Burkinq) conducting EFPs (étude faisabilité participative with a group of 19 consultants…very interesting!! By the end you are to figure out lots about the village you are in like %poor,%rich,%alphabetized, perspective of women and their level of decision making, power dynamics and so many other things. Its quite an intense process and you really need to be organized but its supppppppper interesting), an eye opening experience on realities of the field. While we had these perfectly written documents in hand signed off by UN professionals on how to go about conducting a participatory study, there were many situations were we didn’t know where to look for to find solutions. So we would adjust and ask questions in different ways with a different structure to get results. An example is the venn diagrame as a method to determine different organizations and groups involved in the village activities and the closeness of each to the committee managing the plateforms. Following the steps suggested ended up in a fight where each person in the group was claiming the organization where he or she was involved with is the one with the closest relationship to the group that is to manage MFP!!! I have to admit it was quite funny to see everyone argue…

In addition to what I saw, I also heard lots of stories (don’t know if they’re true or not) from 19 other field workers that I was working with. A crazy one was this lady who once was sent to a region of animists to conduct a study (she is a mosi). Her arrival coincided with that time of the year where this ethnic group has to do a fetich for the season’s harvest. The fetich requires human blood and so each year there is a villager who is killed and his blood is used for this fetich. As she happened to be the newly arriving étranger, they decide to have her killed! Long story short, she manages to escape but ever since then she refuses to participate in any activity held in an animist village. I am not planning on conducting studies in this kinda villigaes either so don’t worry!

Regardless of the obstacles, the work continues and the field workers try to adjust and find solutions. But seeing and hearing some of these problems has made me realize the difficulty of being on the field. So now when someone tells me ‘c’est dur le travail sur le terrain’ I try to understand what they mean based on their perspective and their realities. Part of my impact plan is still to get the people in my office to get out more often; increasing frequency, duration and depth of aller sur le terrain of members in the team. Well, it ain’t gonna be as easy as I thought!

First week of juin, I am going back to one of these villages where our EFP was positive to begin the installation process of MFP. I am quite excited to follow up with the progress and the impacts afterwards. It’s really neat to observe from the beginning and witness the evolution.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Disturbing Realities?

As it was the long and the last weekend of April, we decided to take a little trip in the west side of the country and visit the area around Bobo-Dialousou. Bobo is a green town with lots of mango trees and as lonely planet puts it one of travellers favourite spots in Burkina. The city itself has some interesting places to visit and there is lots of pastry shops.. emmm.

Despite the good things, I called this blog ‘disturbing realities?’ as during this weekend, there were afew moments where I thought ‘wow’ I didn’t expect to see this today….

Starting with the old town: it’s sort of like a small village itself with buildings and huts that date back to centuries ago. Unlike most places in Burkina, this area is not flat and has quite abit of angle to it. At the lowest point, there is what you may call a small river or a stream. This is where you see women and single men washing their clothes, and children taking baths. But you also see all sorts of other things such as garbage and dirt and…. So the scene is disturbing in a sense that with my ‘white person lens’ I had a hard time even stepping into that water yet from the perspective of a Burkinabé in the area, this is where things can get clean. I do have to mention that this image is not a sad one in context as women are chatting with each other while washing the clothes and kids are having a good time and laughing while doing all sorts of tricks in the water. The red flag is only in my head that is signalling the different realities, my reality verses theirs.

As I was lost in thoughts while walking by the river, I came across another image: one kid who had caught five or six lizards and had passed a stick through their heads. In Africa, lizards are everywhere. Some are about 30cm long (some unnecessary info about lizards J) As he was walking with few of his buddies, he was showing off by holding up the stick with the dead lizards hanging and telling people about how he had killed them. Well, how often do you see dead lizards as toys?

The same day was also coincided with the “dance of masks” in one of the animist villages. So the dance of masks happens once a year and it happens after the first rain of the year to show appreciation. Each family is dressed in these crazy outfits with masks on their faces. There are drummers playing as the dancers enter the centre of a huge crowd and start their moves. This was quite interesting to watch. Unfortunately I couldn’t take good pictures. Here in Burkina some believe that if you take a picture you will steal their soul and so you always have to ask before taking a picture. The few times that I did ask, it was not permitted.

So the dance of masks brings me to the last image that I want to share and that is also related to indigenous believes and the animist religion. During our last day of stay, Guillaume surprised me by renting a motorbike and showed off his driving skills (by almost getting us into an accident J) on the way to what they call the Sacred fish spot. Here people come from all over the region to pay sacrifices. After abit of hiking and abit of descending in a beautiful mountainous area, you will arrive at a small lake where the sacred fishes live. Sacrifices are made by feeding chickens and even sheeps to these fishes. First, you kill the chickens, sheep and whatever else you want to feed the fishes. Then you take off the furs, skins… Then you take out the intestines and this is what you throw in the water while making a prayer. The rest you can cook right there and eat. This is a small lake surrounded by trees deep inside a mountainous area. By the water and on the rocks you see furs all over the place, there is also blood and flesh. Some people have warms in their hands to throw in the water to the fish. As a rule and to pay respect, you are not allowed to have shoes or sandals on in the area. So imagine all the good stuff that was stuck to my feet after walking around. As tempting as it was to take pictures and record what I was witnessing, again I was not allowed to use my camera…

Did I make it sound ugly and frightening enough? Well, it’s a matter of different realities. In their reality, this activity will help them do better, it will bring them wealth and health and so it might. From their eye it is not ugly, dirty and frightening. It is holly and it is sacred.

I am going to end with a question that Robert Chambers has asked: Whose reality counts?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Rain at last!

On the weekend we received the first rain of the year in Ouaga. After weeks of sunshine and 50°c temperature, finally the sun was hiding behind the clouds and Ouaga was covered with droplets of water. But let me tell you, when it rains, it rains hard. As we were quite excited at the beginning we started abit of dancing in the rain. After getting fully drenched and feeling cold (for the first time in Africa), and laughed at by the neighbors, we decided to get inside and watch the rain from there. Just when it had finally stopped, Guillaume and I took a ride on a motorbike that we had borrowed from a friend to go around the neighborhood. Of course we weren’t quite lucky with the day we had chosen for this activity as we had to stop afew times for the rain to slow down to be able to continue. Nevertheless, it was one pleasant weekend.

Simple yet pleasant moments don’t just happen on the weekends. During the week, I often find myself smiling about something really little but pleasing. I guess one thing that I really really enjoy here is the human connection/interactions. Back home, when I get on the bus or in a cab I am either listening to my music or minding my own business. I rarely know my neighbors and don’t usually say hi to people on the street. Well, here is quite a different story. All neighbors know each other and pay visits often. In the morning and at night time you always here people saluting one another. There is all sorts of conversations while you are on the bus or in a cab. Every morning when you arrive to work, you say hello to all co-workers and they do the same.
Maybe another way to put this is that here it seems like you are always part of a bigger group and there is never only you. Whereas back home we are more focused on our individual lives. If my neighbors don’t see me here for a day, they will be concerned and knock on the door to see how I am, whereas how many times have you heard stories of people dying in their houses and nobody noticing till weeks later??

Well, sometimes the visits do get out of hand and you find yourself locking the door so that you can be alone for awhile…So of course this sense of community and less individualistic approach has its own down sides. If you are the eldest or the richest in the family, you are obliged to provide for others and that can include immediate and extended family members. Its simply expected. My co-worker is always concerned about what he needs to put aside at the end of the month to send to his family in the village.

Regardless of the downsides, I do enjoy the visits from the neighbors, salutations on the way to work and the communal approach that is so evident in the African lifestyle. There is really not much to share, but as they say “vous êtes invités” to what there is to share.
pic: me and neighbors

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mission in the East

This was my time to explore the eastern part of Burkina while doing a pre-etude pour reseau d’adduction d’eau potable. Thus the main objective of this mission was to do a pre-study of villages who had demanded a water system. As background information, Burkina’s current situation with respect to access to water is quite harsh. In this landlocked country, in most areas woman have to walk for kilometres to reach a pump. Then, using their physical force they fill up their containers and carry them on their head all the way back to their homes. En plus, there is no guarantee that the water is treated and will not cause diseases. In fact, according to the World Health Organization 80% of all diseases in Burkina Faso are caused by unsafe water. So to tackle this problem, our famous multifunctional plateform is also used to install a small system for improved drinking water. But to actually implement a system, there is a whole process that needs to be respected, village submits a demand, if accepted pre-study is done, then feasibility study, then creation of management committee and finally implementation… Assuming all stages of the process go as planned and there is a monitoring that goes along with the steps, the population can eventually have access to drinkable water. I do say ‘assuming’ because there is all sorts of glitches that can happen in each stage and this is what makes development complex. While everything sounds perfect on paper and in theory, the story is otherwise or not as perfect in the field. For example in one village the members of the management committee seemed to be all relatives (sisters, uncles..) of the person responsible for creating the committee!! Or another interesting note was the monitoring staff who don’t get out there in the field often enough to follow the work that is being done. Well, you might think, as I thought, they’re just lazy or irresponsible and a solution could be to fire them and hire hard working individuals. However, as I realized during this week, there are deeper causes for such behaviours. As an explanation for the monitors behaviour listen to the following: In rural areas and outside of larger cities, a common activity for “gang thieves” is to stop cars on the road to obtain cash and their other belongings. Sometimes it can get rough and people might loose their lives because of it. For that it is often recommended not to travel at night and in most offices driving after 6pm for work purposes in not permitted. I further realized that the rate of this activity in the eastern part of Burkina is quite high and the reason why I learned this is because one of the monitoring staff was held by gun point on route during the same time I was in the region. As I listened to her story I could better understand why she and others would be less enthusiastic about getting on the road to do their job. So I learned that poverty has more than one dimension. I can work on a solution that targets poverty in terms of lack of access to drinking water. But in the process of applying the solution, the results can easily be affected by other dimensions of poverty, poverty that encourages young people to point their guns at you.
On the positive side, it was very interesting to visit some villages with MFP installed in them and hear from the women how this project is benefiting their lives. So despite the glitches and the complexity of it all, there is positive change which is encouraging. A +

Monday, April 03, 2006

Trip to the south, PO

This posting will be rather short as it was only a short weekend spent in the South. The small city of PO is close to the Ghanaian border with cooler weather and more vegetation. Approximately 50km from PO, there is an ancient village called Tibiélé. It’s a village of animists and indigenous beliefs are quite evident. It is famous for its architecture with sacred zones and historical images on the walls. The story goes back in the day where tribal conflict was number one cause of death in the region. Thick walls and small entrances were created for protection
against outsider attacks. Each symbol, line and shape on the wall and of the building units represents a different meaning and still to this day they are created in the same manner. Here are some pics:
Courtyard of one house, passageway of another
View from the roof
Kitchen with natural light

Friday, March 24, 2006

First mission in the North

This was my first mission outside of Ouagadougou, the capital city, heading towards Ouahiguya. Ouahiguya is located in the Northern part of the country and is very close to the Malian border. The objective of the mission was to meet with stakeholders involved in implementing a pilot rural electrification project. The idea is to install PTFs (multi-functional plateforms) with micro-electricity among the functionalities in 6 villages of northern Burkina. Two days mission consisted of one full day of discussion on how to proceed, who is responsible for what and setting dates. I do have to tell you that they like spending hours on discussions. Efficiency might have a different meaning in Africa! I also need to add that participatory is the development approach praised by great development workers right now. But this approach certainly requires time and resources to bring everyone together and allow an equal participation on all sides. The second day was the interesting part for me, as we visited the pre-selected villages for project implementation. Well, it was as rural as it could get and the people that I met are the beneficiaries to the services we are trying to create. So I think it has tremendous value to meet these people, to see their livelihood and to really understand their needs. Of course my one
day visit to the villages is not enough to go in
depth about their needs. But it was certainly an eye opening experience and a reinforcement on the thought: I am so damn lucky to live and have lived the life that I have.

A white person in the village, attracts a lot of attention. Little kids are normally scared of white people and they hide away from you. In one of the villages that we visited, they held a village meeting to discuss the project and to express their thoughts. Almost everyone in the village participated in the meeting except the village chef! So my first reaction to this was sort of like “well, if he is the head of the village, he must be the most important one here and so why isn’t he participating in this gathering?” And the response was that its the visitors who will have to go to the village chef and not the chef to them! So after the gathering, we went to give our salutation to the chef, men shake hands with the chef while women kneel on the ground and pay their respect from a distance. I followed the other women in doing so which brought a laughter to the crowd.

It was also during this mission that I had a thought provoking and yet frustrating experience with a co-worker. The conversation started as we were driving from village to village. I was in a 4X4 (big cars are the way to go in rural areas) with four co-workers (all men) and the base of the conversation was the male-female roles in Burkina verses Canada. I have to admit being in the back seat stuck between two men while hearing them bluntly claim that God created men first and women were created later to serve men’s needs was not the most comfortable position. As I further discovered, this fellow co-worker of mine believed with all certainty that women should not have the same rights as men, that he would not allow his wife to occupy herself with activities other than house work and raising kids, that men need to put their women in the right direction……. By this point; I was about to explode with anger but I did a good job of controlling myself. I tried to explain to him that not everywhere in the world this is the case, that in Canada I would have the same rights as my husband would and that I certainly believe his wife is capable of making her own decisions to determine what is best for her…..

The challenging part was the realization that as much as I could not agree with what he was saying, nor could he understand my side. I realized how different we are, how ingrained are the roots to these differences and how challenging it is to try to change one another.