Sunday, July 03, 2011

Burkina Faso!

In today’s N.Y. Times Nick Kristof recounted a recent trip he made to West Africa. His major conclusion is that all is not hopeless in Africa, as many assume. Quite the contrary, while there are big problems there are also clear indicators of progress. On his journey he drove from Niamey in Niger to Ouagadougou, the capitol of Burkina Faso. I was reminded of a trip I made thirty years ago, when I was Executive Director of the Breakthrough Foundation. Along with Andrew Oerke, head of the Partnership for Productivity (PFP), I covered much of the same terrain Kristof did. Here is part of what I wrote after we returned:

We flew from Paris to Ouagadougou, the capitol of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), a landlocked and desperately poor country and former French colony. The French influence was still evident. We put West African francs in our pockets, croissants in our bellies and spoke French.

After a night in Ouga we piled into a Land Rover and headed east into the bush. Our destination was Fada Ngourma, almost 200 miles away, where PFP was at work. After about a hundred miles the paved lane and a half road was replaced by an unpaved track, rutted, with multiple potholes, the depth of which was hidden by water that had collected during a recent rain. We judged the potholes on a scale of 1 to 10. It was a ten if we bounced up high enough to smash our heads against the roof. We hit two bona fide tens, a few nines, and many sevens and eights.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside establishment that featured a few wooden tables outside for al fresco dining. We were joined by about two dozen ugly buzzards. They were just hanging around, at a discreet distance away but close enough for discomfort. I hoped they were waiting for our leftovers, not for us.

We arrived in Fada in good shape and spirits. I was to stay in a PFP house with Andrew and several of his colleagues. The house was roomy, clean and comfortable. A good night’s sleep was our reward.

The next day we visited some of PFP’s clients. The excitement and enthusiasm evident in the faces of these new entrepreneurs was genuinely moving. Each one, as they told their story, demonstrated the validity and brilliance of the micro-lending approach that PFP was promoting. They spoke in the local tribal language, Gurmanchi, which was translated into French, then into English and back again. It worked quite well.

We saw a man and his son turning an old bicycle wheel that was hooked up to a mechanism that aerated a forge. They collected discarded tin cans, melted them down, and then poured the liquid metal into forms that turned it into pots and pans. Their loan had totaled something like $60.

We met a man who had built a clay oven, in which he made bread every day. We met tailors, shoemakers, fruit juice providers, and more.

We met a woman who had received one of PFP’s larger loans, to buy a small grain grinder. Until she went into business, for as long as anyone could remember she and the other women in her village had been spending countless hours grinding grain by hand. Now, for a small fee, they were freed from that task.

We met a man who for many years had owned a bicycle repair shop. During those years he had a plan and a vision. He knew that perishable goods had to be moved from outlying villages to small towns. He also knew that the service currently being provided was unreliable. So he planned to save until he had enough money to buy a small truck and then go into the transportation business. Just recently he realized his dream. His beat up old truck didn’t look like much, but it got the job done. This man was inspiring.

The night before we were to leave Fada, our hosts put on a great party. Local musicians provided the entertainment and the cook made a delicious variety of local foods. We ate too much, drank too much and went to bed late.

In the morning I woke up drowsily. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but things were not as they should be. Then Benct, a Swede who was Andrew’s lead man in Fada, came running in. “We’ve been robbed,” he yelled. Now, things began to come into focus. My jeans were gone. So was my briefcase. And other things had been moved around.

We found all our trousers in a pile on the kitchen floor. Whatever had been in the pockets was gone. We began a search for our belongings. Outside, around the corner of the house, I found some items that had been in my briefcase. But I was missing a lot, including my passport, cash, papers, and a special silver bracelet that I’d had for many years.

The police were called and came to investigate. They took a statement from me and filled out some forms, but I felt they were going through the motions. Whatever they were doing wouldn’t help at all. I was sure of it.

A local PFP staff member told us we were the victims of powerful gris gris. Gris gris is strong invisible magic that successful thieves use to make sure those they are burgling at night don’t wake up while it is happening. Since none of us were aware of anything until morning, it was obvious that the gris gris had worked. My unspoken conclusion about all this was that our deep sleep had more to do with the booze we drank during and after dinner than it did with gris gris. But, who knows?

When the tumult settled down, it was clear there was nothing more we could do, so we might as well get on with our program. We got back in the Land Rover and headed further east, to Diapaga, 100 miles deeper into the bush.

Diapaga memories:

It was a very hot trip. By the time we reached Diapaga I had a thirst that demanded cold water or cold beer. I knew there was no electricity in Diapaga, so I was sure we’d find nothing cold. But, alas, the gods of the West African bush were smiling on us. Or to be more accurate, the PFP staff knew how to take care of themselves. They had an old-fashioned icebox that was filled with very cold beer. Delicious!

We stayed in what the French called a hutment: small houses for lodging hunters who came to this area to shoot wild game. The houses were built of mud and thatch. The overhang from the roof came down to within a couple of feet of the ground, effectively preventing any cooling breeze from invading our space. Of course, air couldn’t penetrate the mosquito netting we used at night, so I guess the overhang issue was academic.

In addition to no electricity, Diapaga was without running water. We were given a bucket of water that was to be used for washing. It was delivered in the evening. I noticed that the water was quite muddy, but I assumed the dirt would settle overnight. Wrong. In the morning it looked the same. But it was wet, so we used it.

The second morning we were there, when I emerged from under the netting it appeared that the dirt wall across the room was moving. Upon closer inspection I saw that it wasn’t moving but it was alive. The entire wall was covered with small creatures, all of which were headed in an upward direction. After an hour or so they were gone.

Gris Gris Revisited:

About six weeks after returning from Upper Volta, I received a letter from Benct. He told me the police had found the thief and had recovered my briefcase. He was sending it by diplomatic pouch. He said the thief was in jail.

The briefcase arrived a little beat up but intact. Inside was everything that had been there that night in Fada Ngourma, including my passport, the cash and my special silver bracelet. I was thrilled.

I had a theory: it would have been too embarrassing for the police and the local Fada people to reveal who the thief was while we were there. But, I thought, Fada is not a large place; certainly there could be no secret about who would do such a burglary. It seemed to me that the work PFP was doing was appreciated. Therefore, they did not want to see PFP guests ripped off. And so I got my stuff back.

Several years later I was hosting a group of visitors from Africa. Included was a woman from Burkina Faso. I told her about my experience in her country and about the theft. I gave her my theory about what had happened and why my briefcase was returned. I asked her if that seemed right to her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I do know that your gris gris is stronger than the thief’s.” And she pointed to my bracelet. In her mind it was the power symbol.

It was obvious that PFP’s relationship with the people they helped went far beyond the loan of a few francs or an innovative idea. The context for their lives had changed. What had previously been assumed to be impossible was now possible. So the actions people took now served and furthered their new possibility – and it worked brilliantly.


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