"I realize that we cannot expect development to follow the same path or even resemble modern workings of the West, to do this would be to rob Africa of its identity much the same way as the colonialists did not more that 50 years ago. Burkina Faso has its own path to take just as the United States, Great Britain, China and many others took inherently different paths to reach the developed yet unique cultures." - Adam Wood, Class of 2006
January 20: My few weeks working here in the development "industry" has reminded me of one great life lesson which I tend to forget often. The lesson being that despite religion, social background and color, people are self interested and want nothing more than to insure their own survival. The people here have been made greedy by money, something that did not really exist here prior to colonialism and now consumes their lives since it has been linked to survival. The concept of money and the chance that it brings has overridden the long-term concepts of education and personal values so that people will sell their children into prostitution or sell their ancient cultural artifacts for just a few dollars. I cannot judge this as wholly wrong because I was not born into the struggle that faces a population living in a country, which ranks between third and fourth in the worlds 50 poorest nations.
The development work that I have excitedly come here to participate in has followed this same economic path. I think I came into the development world expecting more passion and vigor from my colleagues but have found this perhaps 35 percent of the time. The reality of my office experience with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is that this "industry" is a job creator in a place where jobs are a wealth shared by a precious chosen few. These workers at CRS work their eight-hour day doing the minimum and going home to their lives, I have never heard one of them discuss the impact of their programs or even acknowledge the poverty that exists around them. I get the feeling from this 65% that it really would not matter if it were development industry or music industry: it's a paycheck and it is status.
I brought up the fact that I felt this way to my host father/boss at work who acknowledged my question with a slight air of embarrassment. He agreed with me that the majority of the workers at CRS were there because there is not a whole lot of opportunity to go anywhere else. I think my question appeared to him to be based in a slight naivety to the economic situation in his country. I realize that there is little to no other choice for an educated person to find employment out side the development industry by the simple fact that there is no other viable industry. I find the whole situation sadly ironic but I suppose that it does not really matter what peoples motives are for working in development but only that the country and its people benefit.
I have found myself asking what my personal motivations are for sitting here thousands of miles from home drenched in sweat, dust and mango flies pondering another peoples problems which in truth I could go my whole life comfortably without ever considering. I hope I am here for the right reasons and not just using these people to make my life more interesting or gain the experience needed to find a better job. Karl Marx was one of many philosophers who have made the argument that all out actions are guided by a personal interest. I believe this is true, so I suppose my reason for being here is to trick my arrogant self-interest into benefiting someone beside myself.
January 26: I hate trying to learn a second language as an American or more importantly as an Anglophone. I lived in France for six months trying to find people who would be willing and patient enough to sit and work with me though my pitiful grasp of their language. Prior to my time in France I had taken a year of French in college and during my freshman and sophomore years of high school. When I met a francophone it seemed that they all had benefited from between nine and eleven years of English in school and perhaps one or more trips a few hours north to the United Kingdom. I was outnumbered, out gunned and worst of all my frustration was generally misunderstood.
The French that I met were happy that I was trying to learn their language but mostly felt that it was much more important to have a mastery of English rather than their native French. I wanted nothing more than to be able to communicate 50% of my idea in their language and yet every time I failed I was able to revert to English to make up the difference. France was the first time that I was faced with the reality that English had become a universal form of communication much like Swahili and More were in Africa and French once was among educated Europeans and Americans. I realize my luck to speak such a widely used language maternally but I wish like hell that I could have had the opportunity of a bilingual household growing up.
My experience here in Burkina Faso with language has been even more interesting considering that only about 20% of the population actually speaks French. The vast majority of people here want to learn English and have had some opportunity to do so in school. The reality is that VERY small group of Burkinabe actually speak English with some proficiency, which has been great for my French. However, these English speakers do not understand why in the least I would be interested in learning French. I have explained that I feel learning a language is a form of respect and opens me up to so many new people and their cultures. The general response has been that everyone speaks English or someone can be found who does so don't waste your time. I will always disagree with this train of thought.
Bangre, my boss/host father lived in the United States for three years on a USAID scholarship and his English is good. He believes that English-speaking countries such as Ghana and Nigeria have much better prospects for growth and development because they can more easily communicate with other countries and international corporations. I have thought a great deal about how the language difference would be of greater benefit economically and its true, that more tourists, corporations and Western NGO's may find operating in an English-speaking environment easier on multiple levels.
I am convinced that if I was not an Anglophone I would have three times the mastery of French than I have right now. I realize the economic advantages of speaking English but I cant help but feel sorry for the lack of focus on other languages. I know that if I had allowed myself to speak only English while I was living in France I would not have survived my time thus far in Burkina Faso, despite the advantages of English the reality is that a billion people still only speak French Spanish and Chinese. I have also found that people are very surprised to meet an American who can speak French and all of them immediately assume that I was not born in the United States or that one of my parents came from a francophone country. One of the guards at CRS calls me Café au Lait, Coffee with Milk. We really must not forget that the world is filled with languages and although from Macedonia to East Timor someone always speaks English, we cannot assume people will be there to accommodate English speakers.
February 2: It is Monday and I am back at the office after one week spent in the field. I do not know how to feel exactly right now sitting here in a comfortable office so far from the real problems. My experiences in the field were intense, dirty, awkward and most importantly realistic. I find it mildly hilarious that for three weeks, I was preparing and developing a study with out ever having worked at the ground level. I have come away with an entirely changed perspective on the difficulties and realities that complicate the success of these development projects. I can see very clearly how many people sit in offices developing and guiding projects that could never possibly work in the reality of field situations.
I embarked last Monday morning by 4x4 heading East towards the province of Gna Gna and a final destination of Bogande the capital of the whole region. We raced through a wild semi arid landscape hiding huge broken boulders behind ancient Boab trees. The many towns we passed grew smaller exponentially as we left the countries capital Ouagadougou. I noticed that with each of these passing towns the markets go smaller and the available produce decreased rapidly. When we entered Bogande the situation because apparent, the regions poor soil and poorer climate have fatally endangered local food supplies. The Bogande region is the poorest in Burkina Faso, which ranks as the third poorest country in the world.
Basically after finding an interpreter I was sent by 4x4 another 30 kilometers into the wilderness to track down and interview beneficiaries of my micro-credit project. This sounds like a rather simple task until you mix languages, distance, unmarked huts, long distances by motorcycle and no prior field experience. Considering all that the interviews went very well, I only had to make minor revisions to my survey and none of the women felt invaded or threatened by the questioning. My time working on the ground was cut short by transportation problems yet I was able to conduct 20 interviews with clear results.
The CRS agents at the field office were of a much more laid back practical group than the tie and gold pen type that I have gotten used to here at head quarters. I think that they were not nearly as used to working with first timers and gave me a lot of responsibility and control over the planning and implementation of my study, which was amazing. The village experience was delicate since the tribal social system requires rhythmic respect for hierarchical authority. The Chiefs, after much bowing and strong hand shakes allowed us to conduct our work as long as we stayed within his view. I found the people overwhelmingly generous and attentive with only a small tinge of shyness and curiosity.
I did not fall into any huge hole with my survey that required an entire rewrite. I would give the advice to anyone that is undertaking serious survey to keep it as simple and clear as possible. I did not take into consideration exactly the daily lives of these women and the trials that may weigh on their minds while sitting around answering financial question. I had one women my second day who had lost her 10 year old son to malaria that morning and was still there asking and answering questions about the loan she had taken out to pay for her children’s school expenses. I really did not know how to deal with what appeared to be her extremely calm, almost normal demeanor. I asked my translator how she could possibly be as calm as a Hindu cow. David told me that since her child was young, thus not having a long life, it was not a great loss and that there would be no funeral since there was not enough life to have a major celebration. I cried that night.
February 13: I was on a personal trip this weekend to relax both my mind and body. I visited a game park in the south of the country and then took a guided tour of a painted village. The whole trip was brief, probably taking less than twenty-four hours to complete. I found the village a profound experience that still has left me awestruck. We took a guide who walked us through the major points of interest and allowed us to enter his house and the house of his chief. Our guide mainly spent his time explaining the regions history and belief system. The majority of Burkinabe are still practicing Animists, which according to Webster's Dictionary means "They believe in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena." When I look at the modern 4x4s people are driving, the cell phones they are talking on and the American Hip Hop that their kids are listening to I am still amazed that they sacrifice chickens and consult spirits on matters ranging from health to soccer.
The strong Animist beliefs vary greatly between cultures and even villages in many countries of Africa. I cannot generalize all of these practices under one structure, but most seem to follow the line of magical powers and the ability to change events by sacrifice or casting spells. I was told of a man for example who was holding a small lock and key while listening to a soccer game on the radio. Each time a player on the other team was doing well he would cast a spell and turn the key on the lock causing the player to make a mistake in favour of the old man's team. I asked where he had learned this magic and they told me that he had consulted his spirits and they had given him the power. Faith of this nature makes me a little worried about what spells, good or bad, may be cast on me as I do my work in the field.
Animism, like many religions, has been the tool most commonly used to explain the daily workings of life in the villages. The chief goes to consult the spirits when something goes wrong or when advice is needed on a particular subject. There have been a lot of problems with the outcome of these spiritual consultations. One example is the death of a child in the village, these cases, which are usually malaria, are considered witchcraft by the villagers and thus the "witch" (usually an elderly woman) is banished from the village...or worse. This problem has become so common that CRS has actually set up a shelter for these banished women where they can live together safe from the harm of their villagers, the shelter holds about 500 women at the moment who would otherwise have starved to death.
The village, which I visited, was one such Animist village that had been a major center for Animist celebrations and practice. I felt a little strange walking through the huts covered in chicken blood and feathers where daily sacrifices are held to bring good fortune to the village. I was asked not to take pictures, which led me to believe that these people, young and old still have faith in their Animism. I do not know exactly what I am supposed to feel when I walk by cattle sacrifices in a village where, despite the law, female circumcision is still practiced and magic plays a vital role in peoples daily lives. I attempted to maintain an open mind and found that although I do not agree with what I consider a breach of human rights, I cannot dismiss these beliefs as any less significant than my own.
I believe that religion should always be questioned so that faith remains devoted and strong. Despite a year of liberal education, this experience has truly proven to me that so many things we cling to as absolute are actually just relative to a moment or a set of developed social norms. I feel so strongly against the forced marriage of women or the "wrongful" banishment of outsiders, yet if I allow myself to look at the complexity of the village's social environment and my own social location I am at a loss to truly understand these beliefs and practices and thus I cannot entirely pass judgement. I am reminded of an article I read in which the cultures of East and West clash over human rights and we found that neither side can truly judge the other and that right or wrong is broken down into the context of the situation.
February 28: I had a wonderful conversation with a Burkinabe who works for Plan International in the same region as me. He was born in a Mossi village and educated both in Africa and Europe. This man's travels and education have allowed him to intimately experience the Western World, the developed African World and the extremes of an isolated village lifestyle. I was grilling him with questions about culture, political leaning and most importantly his answer to African development. I received the general responses on all my favorite subjects until the conversation came crashing into the question of "How in the hell do we develop Burkina Faso?" He laughed asking me if I had not noticed that if I walk just one kilometer in any direction I am immediately standing in a poorer version of 13th century Europe!! Oh yeah! J'quoi oublié éila!
I was always told that the process of third world development will take many years. So I have had to ask the obvious question "How many years?" What if the answer to my question was 100 years, or even 400 years? Would I still be ready and willing to stand here and beat my head against the wall, only to have my work end without ever seeing the fruits of my labors? I know that I am not at a place in my life to truly ask myself a question of such overwhelming magnitude, yet the reality of the situation is staring me in the face less than a mile from here. The truth is that despite the impediments of government corruption, lack of sound institutions coupled with educational, health and agricultural crisis the village populations are generations away from developing an internally sustainable society that meets the needs of its people.
The true life style of this place is in practicing animism, polygamy, a royalty class system, slavery, and tribal law while holding a Coke and wearing imitation Prada sunglasses made in Pakistan. An example of this mix exists in the modern issues of land ownership being addressed by the state. In the history of the Mossi Empire, land disputes were settled with one party being killed by the other as a matter of ritual. In Burkina Faso this ritual is practiced to this very day. The major financial problem of building productive lending institutions is that there is little secure private property to use as collateral in giving commercial loans. This problem is not changing because political leaders (most of whom have strong tribal roots) still carry the fear that if they start taking steps to control ownership, they may risk their life in the process. This example illustrates the fact that we cannot expect quick changes on par with the standards of current modern societies. We must rather wait for the people of Burkina Faso to find their own process to development that addresses the still present beliefs held by a people many years removed from what we (as westerners) consider modern development.
I realize that we cannot expect development to follow the same path or even resemble modern workings of the West, to do this would be to rob Africa of its identity much the same way as the colonialists did not more that 50 years ago. Burkina Faso has its own path to take just as the United States, Great Britain, China and many others took inherently different paths to reach the developed yet unique cultures. As I look back at the question I posed my friend that night the answer is lots and lots of time.