mandag, oktober 16, 2006

Blogging from Burkina – September/October 2006

Finally I got around to putting another update together from my stay here in Africa. I have gotten quite a few positive responses to the fact that I have chosen to change into writing in English (and no objections), thus, I am going to stick to this format for a while.

I will start telling you a bit about my experiences down here – be they funny, horrible, interesting or maybe even ‘quirky’ (for lack of a better word). As an example of that, have a look at the following photo taken outside of the office of a local medicine man:

Please note that the clinique is "moderne"...

And what about this woman in the background who is selling bugs (the little black things are big, fried larvae) in a jar to cars passing by her village...

Afterwards, I have decided to write some more of my personal ideas as to why Africa cannot seem to get out of poverty in spite of enormous natural resources, hard-working people and plenty of opportunities in general. I will save all that geo-political, macro-economic babble for last, however, so that readers who could care less can have a chance to bail out before the boring stuff begins. (Or more boring stuff begins – depending how you find this post in general).

The first thing, I wanted to describe, was the unfortunate accident, which me and my driver got involved in on the road between Ouagadougou (capital of BF, known only as ‘Ouaga’) and Bobo-Dioulasso, (where I live). Riding through the bush at a leisurely pace of around 120 km/h, (and yes, that really is considered leisurely around here), whilst we were being taken over by a big 4-wheel drive going about 150. Whilst this take over was being completed, we were passing a tiny petrol station placed in the middle of the bush. At this very moment, at little girl on her bike decided it would be a great time to cross the road without first taking a look over her shoulder, so she turned right in front of our car. After that, things went into slow-motion: My driver displayed lightening-quick reflexes in pulling hard on the steering wheel, and the front of the car missed the girl by a matter of inches. She hammered into the side of the car in stead, and we narrowly missed first the car, which was taking us over and secondly the small petrol station that was on the side of the road. The series of near-misses continued, however, as we went full blast into the bush amazingly without hitting a single tree before coming to a halt in a huge cloud of dust. I had a few seconds to exchange looks with my driver before we got out of the car. None of us had a doubt in our mind that the little girl would be dead as the dodo on the road, but amazingly enough, she came stumbling out of the cloud of dust with “only” a bruised hand and a finger almost ripped of. The bike looked like a metallic version of a long-legged spider after a meeting with a freight train… My driver is Muslim whilst I tend to be of a more Christian persuasion, but we both agreed that god had certainly taken a personal interest in us all that day.

After this we took the girl to a nearby hospital, (oh, I guess I have to add here, that any resemblance to a western-style health establishment was hard to find, except that the doctors wore plastic gloves), where they successfully re-attached the finger and gave the girl the proper inoculations and medicaments, (I off course paid for all of this, to make sure that she would get the proper attention – or get attention at all). We got hold of the girl’s mother, who also arrived.

The whole thing was handled in a calm atmosphere, with no-one blaming us for anything. In fact, the mother was extremely grateful that we had even bothered to stop – much less transport her little girl to hospital… What possibly freaked me out the most was, that the little girl never ushered a word! Not after the accident, not in the car and neither did she cry out when they sowed her finger back on! In fact, the first time that I heard her voice was when her mother called me some days later to tell me, that things were going well with the girl. We have since visited them, and I even have a photo of the little girl:

The girl - called Sarah - with her siblings

Since this little encounter - where Certain Death for some reason had taken an unscheduled day off - have tried to make a life for myself here in Bobo. People are friendly, things are reasonably quiet and the work is keeping me on my toes for quite a few hours a day. Not much is lost by working late, though, since there really isn’t much to do in the evenings. The only cinema in Bobo closed a few years back, (because the manager forgot to pay for new films and kept all the income from ticket-sales to himself), and it is not like people have been standing in line to show me other great ways to spend an evening in what ‘Lonely Planet’ calls: ‘The most laid-back place of West Africa’. It gets bloody lonely at times, but I guess I’ll survive on a healthy supply of books, DVDs and hours in the hotel gym. The ‘international community’ of Bobo consist mainly of elderly French men with some very young African partners (more about this in later posts), and Anglophones are rarer than precious metals, so it has not been easy finding people one can hang out with in the scarce spare time available. Finding local friends have so far proven next to impossible as well. Men will ask me for money anywhere between the first and fifth sentence they utter, whilst a lot of the young women will offer me sex – and then ask for money. It is so incredibly frustrating to experience, but to be honest, I can’t really say I blame them. The common consensus here is that any white man walking about is either easy prey or a ticket out of one of the poorest countries in the world… Thus, even if I have politely tried to make locals around me understand that I will in no way function as a newfound gold mine, they always come up with an offer of either some “fantastic business opportunity”, a horrible story about a hospitalised relative who urgently needs a lot of money or – a personal favourite of mine – present me with a prescribed list of drugs (incl. prices) needed to avoid dying this very instant - complete with the doctors signature and stamp. Regarding the latter, the biggest problem is that it seems everyone around here has that exact list with the same stamp and signature – all in all amazing that the whole town hasn’t fallen over dead yet…

As a crazy kind of ‘wake-up’-call from all of this reality, a Coca-Cola representative called me from Denmark on (very) early morning to let me know I had won a competition after I had written a few lines giving praise to a colleague on their website a few months back. Very ironically, the price was a bunch of coca colas to the whole of my workplace, so whilst I was sitting in Burkina in 42 degrees Celsius, more than a hundred colleagues in Denmark got visited by the Coca-Cola sampling team, (blondes in very good shape, according to my colleagues in DK), who handed out a bunch of cokes for everyone… Having never won a competition in my whole life, I couldn’t help shake my head a bit over the sense of sarcasm displayed by the Almighty in that respect…

I feel like it’s almost an obligation to include a few lines on the more bizarre things, which one keeps experiencing down here, and this time, I would like to describe how freight trains often are used to transport live animals in Africa. Quite a few cows, sheep and chickens are exported from Burkina Faso mainly to the Ivorian capital Abidjan. With the very hot climate down here, it is not possible to butcher the animals here in Burkina and then transport the meat. This means very, very long lines of train wagons departing regularly from Bobo filled with live animals, and one day we got stuck waiting for one of these trains to cross the road. I could have kicked myself for not having my camera with me that day, since it was quite a sight. There were very normal looking cattle cars with open, barred windows filled to capacity with all kinds of cattle, followed by a little less normal cars completely packed with chicken-filled cages stacked from floor to ceiling – wall to wall. The doors were open, I guess to let these poor birds get some air, and the amount of feathers coming out made it look like someone was regularly dropping mini-sized hand grenades inside the wagon. Finally, a lot of open carts with low railings passed us. They were in turn filled to brimming with sheep, standing shoulder to shoulder in the open. Along the railing, quite a few people were placed. First, I though it was freeloaders hitching a ride, but then someone explained to me, that their full job was to be sitting there. Not as a guard against theft, but in stead to make sure that any overturned sheep could be helped back on its feet immediately. Apparently, the sheep will die very quickly, if they are not put back on their feet, so imagine that for a job description: “Sheep lifter”… One could hardly hear the normal sounds of a passing train over the loud protests from all of these animals, and I must admit I don’t really want to know what the survival-rate of especially the chickens is after a few days on the train like that.

In general, the trains down here should really make one be appreciative of our national rail services back home, no matter which short comings they might have!

As warned in the beginning of this post, I will now fire (another) broadside at some of the problems I see being part of limiting the progress of West Africa.

I would love to elaborate a bit on all of the different inputs I have been getting regarding how the governments and official offices work in West Africa, but frankly speaking, I fear putting my honest opinions on public display on a website. This may seem overly cautious, but having learnt my lesson from the extremely paranoid way expatriated French people act regarding criticizing governments or local authorities, I think I will do the same and hold my tongue. Needless to say, that there are very few ACTUAL democracies in Africa, but for a very in-dept analysis of the political history of the different countries down here, I can strongly recommend reading ‘Lonely Planet – West Africa’ that my colleagues kindly bought as a going-away present before my departure. They are certainly not afraid of wording a few truths about the general state of things (or lack of state) down here.

There may be quite a few negative outbursts in this post, but I have spent some time trying to figure out, why it is, that Africa stays so poor. (No, I am not trying to save the world, but I cannot help wondering why this continent is going nowhere). In previous posts, I have already criticised the way the heavily subsidised agricultural products from the western world are being dumped down here and the more than ridiculous way some of the aid-organisations (NGO’s) are handling the project-money spent down here, so I will not spend more time shouting about that. There has to be other and internal reasons as to why Africa is not moving forward, and I decided to try and discover some of them. First and foremost the widespread and – horribly enough – generally ACCEPTED corruption plays a big part. One could argue, that the white man brought the corruption here (it was apparently non-existent in the old African cultures before colonisation), but I must say, that the Africans have certainly embraced it in a way one does not see any other place in the world. Constantly African countries are rated at the very top of all the corruption indexes, and very little progress is seen fighting it. In fact, in quite a few places down here it continues to be on the rise. The general consensus is that corruption is a natural part of everyday African life, so not even in the general public does one see objections towards it. Everyone seems to be looking for a job that would allow them to ask for bribes by everyone else! It is almost impossible to make my mind accept the attitude towards corruption, down here. (Denmark is – according to the latest index – the world’s LEAST corrupt place to live). If I should attempt to describe the attitude in spite of my national ‘handicaps’ in this relation it can be summed up like this:

“Well, corruption is everywhere, there is no way around it, and that will never change. If I should get a chance of blackmailing someone for money that way, I should certainly take it. The best way would be to become a politician, of course”. This is all described very black-and-white (no pun intended), but the longer one stays in Africa, the more one realises the simply staggering level of corruption down here in virtually every layer of society.

Another very important factor, I believe, is the lack of legal reformations down here. Most of the legal systems are based on very old English and French laws, dating back to before the colonisation era and definitely not created to be the legal basis for a modern-day society. Thus, everything here is all “red tape”. Bureaucracy is everywhere and unavoidable, thus creating perfect “breeding grounds” for more corruption. It takes forever to create a company, for instance, thus making sure, that very few people actually try to go through the long and expensive process. As the worst example, it takes 2 years of waiting time to register a simple, one-man company in Somalia, and in Niger it will cost you what equals one annual, average income to complete that same process! All this “red-tape” therefore results in very few companies being made, then again resulting in no VAT or taxes being paid, no organisation of labour being done by the employees (since they don’t actually work for a company) and thus creating no income for the government. I mentioned that corruption feeds on this situation – let me elaborate: If it takes you a year to get your papers through the normal registration procedure, maybe one could “help” the process pick up some speed by offering a bit of “incentive” to the government official managing the waiting list for new companies? If that is too troublesome, quite a few people tend to make a private “arrangement” with the local tax official – making him turn a blind eye to the fact that one is running an unlicensed company. Again a process that prohibits any tax money from actually reaching the state (because all the personal tax ends up in the pocket of the tax collector – yes – it’s like old Nottingham – unfortunately without Robin Hood), and ergo the country stays poor. Apart from this, the family structure down here ensures that everyone is loyal to their family first and to their country later. That goes for all of us, but down here, the family actually takes care of a lot of the things we keep at a national government level in the western world. Thus – it is more important to improve your status in the family than in the country – and corruption’s damage on society is neglected because the focus lies within the family.

I know that a lot of these thoughts have probably been worded, discussed or criticised by a lot of smart people (probably with some sort of degree in economics) – after all I cannot be the first person to notice these things, so I hope no-one accuses me of plagiarism. I still believe, however, that there are more reasons as to why ‘status quo’ seems to be the ruling principle of African developments.

Religion plays a part for sure – I would have liked write a broadside against how Islam is being interpreted by some people around here, but a few drawings of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper has put me off doing it in English – that will have to wait.

Rather, I would like to comment a bit on the circular way, Africans view their life. In the Western world, we have always thought in a straight line: We are born, we work our way through life trying to improve it and reach goals and then we die. Down here, everything is part of a big circle. Thus, there is no point in moving forward, because we will all end up back at our point of origin. This thought is so very bizarre for westerners that a lot simply cannot accept it, but down here – it’s the order of the day. The problem with the circular way of life is that nothing changes. The tools used for farming during the last several hundred years are not changed or improved – if they were sufficient for the forefathers, they will suffice today. The general mentality simply doesn’t seem to incorporate general wish to optimize, change and improve – and here lies a big part of the reason as to why Africa remains poor. Let me give an example: Back in Aarhus in August, I had lunch with a few colleagues at work. We discussed a new way, that the dairy company had constructed their milk-cartons. The focus point of discussion was a turn-cap opening, which had a few problems. One colleague said that unlike normal cartons, with a turn cap it is not possible to see, whether the carton has been opened or not – which was annoying when one had a big family and a lot of cartons in the fridge. After 6 minutes of discussion, the group had analysed the problem and come up with at least 5 or 6 different approaches as to solving the problems. We had analysed, optimised and solved the problems.

In Africa, they have very fixed ideas about how things you buy at a market should look. Thus, you cannot – in any way – change the way something is wrapped or boxed because the Africans will stop buying it instantly. (This means that all cooking oil sold in Africa continues to be put in orange jerry-cans, because “that’s the way oil should look” – and has looked for about 50 years…). The example may be a bit simplistic, but I hope the message is clear: Africans don’t want change because there is no point. We are all going back to where we came from anyway. (Yes, it’s bizarre for a western mind to accept, I know). It may sound trivial and not very important, but I can assure you, that this way of thinking really holds Africa back.

Finally, this post is at an end – I hope the few of you that made it to the end enjoyed it! I couldn't finish without another of my favorite photos of the traffic around here, however, so enjoy:

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