Two weeks ago, I got onto a plane in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, destined for Toronto, Canada. When I crossed the airplane’s threshold, I stepped into another world; a world that most of my Burkinabè friends will never have the chance to see. To cross that threshold into the “developed” world, you must be a member of a fairly exclusive club, which admits mostly westerners and the most highly educated, wealthy citizens of southern and eastern nations. In this other world, life is very different.

Upon returning to Canada, I found a job in one week, and started working the next day. My friend Tinda in Burkina Faso has been looking unsuccessfully for work for 20 years, and has still managed to raise a family and take in several nieces and nephews who have nowhere else to go.

I start my university classes tomorrow. My Burkinabè sister Alizeta, who is the same age as I am (25) has been struggling for years to be able to complete her studies up to grade nine – working in the fields to feed the family had to take precedence.

Upon my arrival to Calgary, I had several affordable housing options – each with my own room. Apollinaire, Wendenso, Adambila, Cyril and Alidou, all young students aged 8 to 14, share one mattressless room without complaint, just to have access to an elementary education.

I do not wish to belittle the lives of my friends; on the contrary, I want to highlight the incredible strength and potential of many of the wonderful people I met during my time in Burkina Faso. After spending time there, I don’t believe that it is simply the poor people of Burkina who need to change in order for their country to rise above the poverty line. They work incredibly hard every day just to put food on the table, and given a good and fair opportunity, they would happily haul themselves out of poverty. Unfortunately, most of the time, those kinds of opportunities just aren’t within reach.

It is the countries with strong economies – those who have the ability to impose (and to remove) powerful trade barriers and who decide when, where and how much aid is given – who have the biggest influence on whether or not Burkina Faso, and many other countries facing even more staggering poverty will make it out alive.

If rich nations are going to use their power for good, it is their citizens who must communicate to their governments that the eradication of poverty is a priority. As a Canadian, I have a say in my governments’ actions. With that power comes responsibility – the responsibility to use the freedom I was given (simply for being born in Canada) to help others access the freedoms and opportunities that I have. Freedom from hunger, from preventable and curable diseases, from abject poverty. The opportunity to study, to work and to choose the kind of life I want to live.

When I got onto the plane in Ouagadougou, destined for Toronto, I stepped into another world. I did not earn my place in this world; I was born into it. And now, I’ll use that place to play my part in the change that sees the end of extreme poverty.

Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy lives to read about my adventures, about life in Boulsa and Dargo, and about the friends I met and the lessons I learned. Your support inspired me to keep writing about it!

Although I am back in Canada, I am still going to blog every now and then – I’m committed to learning more about how to make the world a better place for all the people who live here. I hope you’ll be there to listen!

Until next time,

– Chelsea

Resources, inspirations and ways to get involved

If you’re interested in learning more, or getting involved in international development, you are in luck! There are many ways to do so:

1. You can take out some of these exceptional books at your local library:

2. You can write to your Member of Parliament to ask “So, what is Canada doing in the fight against extreme poverty?” Don’t know who your MP is? Click here to find out!

3. You can learn about the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Did you know that the UN committed to reaching several goals related to global poverty by the year 2015? Some of the goals include:

  • Reduce extreme poverty by one half
  • Reduce under-five mortality by two-thirds
  • Achieve Universal Primary Education
  • And many more…

4. You can get involved with a non-government organization in your community. There are many groups who are doing really good work locally and internationally who would love to have you as a volunteer (beware – there are some who are doing not-so-good work too… one tip is to look for organizations that are focused on continuously learning from past experiences, good and bad).

Thanks again.

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With just 3 days left in my host community, and less than a week left in the country, my work here is pretty much wrapped up. In my time here, I worked with the Departmental Union of Professional Farmers in Dargo on three main projects.

Here is what we managed to accomplish in our time together:

Collection Committee

We organized and developed a collection committee responsible for all of the crop collection activities in Dargo (for example if the union gets a sales contract for X tonnes of peanuts, the collection committee will collect all the peanuts and transport them to the client).

Based on my experiences with the committee, I worked with my EWB coach to develop and propose a province-wide collection system to the Provincial Union, which they are currently evaluating, to see if it will meet their collection needs. Nice!

Presenting the provincial collection strategy to members of the collection committee at an impromptu meeting on my front porch.

Project Peanut (now “Project Bean”, haha)

This project is really exciting for me! After some further market research, we decided to switch our collective sales project from peanuts to beans (better margins!). We completed our business plan for the pilot project last week, and the President of the union will be presenting the project to the union members on Monday, at a General Assembly that we organized. Can’t wait to find out what the members think! 

This project will also be the collection committee’s big début – a chance to test out their collection management skills!

Tinda and Ernest, the President and Secretary of the union, addressing invitations to the upcoming General Assembly.

Capacity building

I spent a lot of time with the union leaders (president, secretary, treasurer etc.) working on different skills that will help them better manage the union’s activities. For example, we did a visioning workshop, where we reflected on the needs of the union members, and then came up with short and long term goals for the union.

We also worked a lot on computer skills, including typing, using Word and Excel, and navigating the Internet.

I’m a huge believer in “learning by doing”, and so I think that the processes of developing a collection committee and a business plan were really important capacity building experiences for the union and for me as well!

An IT lesson with Tinda on how to insert tables into Word documents.

Challenges

Although I think we managed to harness a lot of potential in the union, my placement was not without its challenges.

For starters, at the beginning it was sometimes difficult to evaluate my coworkers’ level of motivation. Since it is the rainy season, most of my colleagues were working hard in the fields in the mornings, and then were quite tired during our afternoon working sessions, which often made our work go by slowly. I made the decision early on that it was not my place to motivate anyone, but rather to support the union in activities they were already motivated to do. So, in the end, I sat down with my colleagues to ask whether they were truly motivated to take on the projects we had started. They emphatically answered that yes, they were motivated, but were often simply tired due to the busy time of year. After that, they started driving the activities a lot more, and we ended up accomplishing a lot!

Working in a completely different cultural context was also challenging, especially since I was intervening in the highly political agricultural sector. It was often difficult to know what to say, and what not to say. In a presentation of my placement to the Provincial Union, for example, I suggested that another volunteer might come to the province to continue the work I had been doing. This became a somewhat political and heated discussion, to my surprise.

In that same presentation, somehow a side conversation began about who had dibs on marrying me. This, of course, was mostly a joke, but my different Canadian cultural beliefs left me feeling very awkward and somewhat annoyed during the entire conversation.

Despite these relatively minor (and somewhat predictable) challenges, working in Dargo has been an incredible experience, filled with lots of excitement, learning and fun. I made many wonderful friends, learned more than I ever imagined about life in the Sahel, and got to know myself a lot better.

I will certainly be keeping in touch with my colleagues here to see how the projects are coming along after I leave.

You can find pictures of some of my recent adventures in these two albums:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2145904&id=120601114&l=0e6d97ca33

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2145956&l=f79bdad7f9&id=120601114

Thanks for reading!

Chelsea

Families here in Burkina Faso work very differently from our families in Canada. The close family unit is made up of much more than grandparents, mothers, fathers and children here. First of all, many men have more than one wife (in my family’s case, four wives), and on top of that, aunts and uncles are just as important as your parents. As such, they are referred to as mother and father; cousins here are called brothers and sisters. This leads to much confusion, and I find myself having many conversations such as this:

“Who is that boy? Does he live here?” I ask one of my host sisters, referring to a new child who seemed to be around a lot lately.

“That’s Amadou. Yes, he lives here.”

“Is he your brother?”

“Yes.”

“Same mother, same father?”

“No, he’s the son of my father’s brother. He’s come to live with us for the summer holidays, to spend time with his cousins”

Westerners always have to ask that question: same mother, same father? That is how we understand the word brother or sister. To a Burkinabè, having the same mother and same father as your siblings is of no consequence: All the kids born to your parents, your parents’ siblings, or your parents cousins are your brothers and sisters.

Since the summer holidays, the number of brothers and sisters in our household has swelled from 11 to 18.

One of the random assortments of kids you can find playing in our yard on any given day - cousins, brothers, sisters, neices and nephews

I’ve been working a lot more in the community of Dargo lately, laboring my little okra field (getting more blisters as usual … ), doing computer lessons with some of my colleagues, and working with the newly formed collection committee to plan the union’s collection activities for this year’s harvest. As I spend more time here, I become more aware of the complex and challenging realities of life for the people here. Let me tell you a bit about what I’ve learned so far…

The commune of Dargo is made up of many small villages surrounding one main village, Dargo. Including the rural population and the populations of all the surrounding villages, there are about 30,000 people here. On the main road, you can find the mayors office, the police station, a credit union and three restaurants who all sell exactly the same thing – coffee, tea and bread in the morning, and rice with peanut butter sauce in the afternoon and evening. When I asked why all the restaurants sell the same thing, they told me that it is because it is the cheapest meal available (30 cents for a bowl of rice with sauce), and no one in town can afford anything else (spaghetti, for example, costs 50 cents per bowl).

The market, just off the main road, is all but deserted during the rainy season, when most people are out working in their fields. It is only in the afternoon on “market day” (every three days) that the market comes to life as salespeople from all over arrive to sell their goods.

Dolo, a locally brewed millet cider, is just one of the many local treats you can buy at the market in Dargo. Yum!

 

Dargo, primarily a farming community, is quite poor. People here work very hard, and yet many have no money in the bank. This means that if the harvest doesn’t produce enough food, they will have problems feeding their families the following year.

Last year, due to a lack of rain, the harvest was poor and most people were unable to grow enough millet, an important staple food, to feed their families for the year. To help out the struggling farmers, the government has been selling bags of millet at subsidized prices ($22 per bag, instead of the market price of $34). One bag can feed a small family of 4-6 people for 2 or 3 months. Imagine not having enough money to buy a $34 bag of flour which could feed your family for 3 months!

Farmers who don’t have enough money to pay $22 for a bag of millet will often undertake numerous small economic activities, such as making clay bricks, or selling different foodstuffs that grow on their land, such as mangoes, edible leaves and seeds or peanuts, in order to buy just a few days of food. When the food runs out, they will work to find a bit more money for the next few days. The problem is, often their only customers are the other citizens of Dargo, who are facing the same difficult financial circumstances.

If that strategy fails, families will borrow money from members of their extended family in order to buy food.

Tinda, my work colleague, has six nieces and nephews staying with him right now, the children of various brothers and sisters. I learned this week that it is because their families were struggling to feed them, and that since he has a bit of money he offered to take them in. Tinda, a farmer with no formal employment, makes that bit of money by volunteering in local organizations (such as the farmer’s union I am working with) where he occasionally gets paid for travel and food expenses. For example, to run a two hour workshop in a village, he gets paid $2, whereas the cost to do so may only be 20 cents. Volunteering like this is often one of the only options that farmers have for making a bit of extra money, since there are virutally no jobs in farming villages like this.

Tinda giving a presentation about making a farming budget to a group of farmers in a nearby village

 

At the same time, things are changing. Ernest, a friend and work colleague, told me the other day that life in Dargo today is completely different from the way it was when he was a child, about 25 years ago. He and his friends were the very first students to attend the very first school in Dargo. Today, there are 5 schools, and you are hard pressed to find a child not attending school. Women’s roles in the village are also changing – women have more freedom and time to undertake their own activities, such as making and selling soap. Traditionally, women and children were too busy labouring in the fields to have time for school or other activities, so the fact that they can do so today shows that some of the harsh realities of life in this Burkinabè village are being eased.

Ernest, with his first daughter Rosaline, predicts that she will grow up in a very different world than the one he was raised in.

 

While this may give a bleak picture of life in Dargo, you would never know that this was the case by talking to people here. They’re all too busy working, chatting amicably with their neighbors, chasing their children around and generally getting on with their lives to sit around and complain about the challenges of daily life.

 Burkinabès are an incredibly proud people, so even when they have absolutely nothing, they will act like everything is fine. Because of this pride, it can be easy for an outsider to ignore the harsh realities of life here. For me, I sometimes find myself thinking it isn’t really all that bad – mostly out of guilt, sometimes out of fear, and often simply out of ignorance. I am constantly struggling to make sense of the complex social and economic situation here, and to be open to understanding the true realities of life here, good and bad.

I read a really great blog by a fellow Engineers Without Borders volunteer in Ghana today, which gives a very different perspective on a similar situation. I highly recommend checking out Sarah’s inspiring blog:

http://sarahsgonetoghana.wordpress.com/

That’s all for me today, thanks for reading!

Chels

Life is different here in Burkina Faso. That, I bet you could have guessed. But, how exactly is it different? It seems like an impossible task to explain all of the differences, but I am going to start small, taking time each week to blog about an element of Burkinabè life that I think might interest you.

This week, I am going to tell you about education!

To start with, public school in Burkina Faso is taught in French. With over 75 indigenous languages in the small country, school is generally where children learn to speak French. What this means is that if you meet someone who can’t speak French, chances are they have never gone to school.

Just like in Canada, there are twelve grades in Burkina. There are also four levels of school: preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school. The big difference is that at the completion of each level, there is an exam you must pass to move to the next level of schooling. At the successful completion of each of these exams, students become eligible for certain types of government jobs. Let me explain further…

Preschool  – Cost: $135/year

Before beginning elementary school, children can go through three years of kindergarten, from ages 4-7. This stage of school is optional – it is helpful for parents who need childcare, but not everyone can afford it.

Elementary School – Grades 1-6 – Cost: $10/year

At age 7, children begin elementary school. It is a lot like in Canada – all the kids in each grade are in a class together with one teacher for all the subjects. Subjects include French, Math, Reading and Physical Education, Geography, Science and Music.

Middle School – Grades 7-9 – Cost: $50-$150/year

In middle school students start learning English, German and History in addition to their other subjects.

High School – Grades 10-12 – Cost: $50-$150/year

High school students in Burkina must choose a concentration: either sciences (science, math etc.), or arts (language, history) based on their interests.

Girls whose parents cannot afford the cost of middle and high school can get government bursaries, bringing the cost down as low as $25 per year (which is still expensive for many families here).

Getting Work

Most jobs in Burkina Faso, other than farming and petty commerce, are government jobs. The process for getting a government job is quite different from the process in Canada.

Basically, students who have passed the Grade 6, Grade 9 and Grade 12 exams can apply to win something called the “concours”, or contest. The students with the best marks will win the contest. When you win, the government gives you training in whichever field you choose (based on your level of education) and gives you a job.

If you have a grade 6 level education, you can train for government jobs such as:

–         Health Care Assistant

–         Midwife’s Assistant

With a grade 9 education students are eligible for jobs like: 

–         Elementary school teacher

–         Nurse

–         Midwife

–         Border guard

–         Police office

–         Veterinarian

Upon passing the grade 12 exam, students are eligible for jobs like:

–         High school teacher

–         Head nurse

–         Police commissioner

–         Administrative Officer for various government bureaus

If a student doesn’t get a good enough grade on the exam to win the contest, they can pay for their own training in their preferred field, but are not guaranteed a job afterwards.

University

There are three public universities in Burkina Faso, and tuition costs are shockingly low, at only $30 per year. The cost to attend one of the many private universities, on the other hand, can climb as high as $2000 per year.

Public university programs in Burkina are run a lot like University of Calgary’s Engineering program. That is, based on their field of study, students get put into a class, and everyone in that class takes the same courses together, with few options.

At this point, job opportunities for University grads are still relatively hard to find, but they do exist. Jobs in non-government organizations are common. University grads often also become doctors, accountants and engineers.

If there is an element of Burkinabè life you’d like to learn about, send me a comment to let me know!

Thanks again for reading!

– Chels

As with most who work in the field, I often struggle with the idea of development. Questions like am I just imposing my own western values? and is my work (and development work overall) doing more harm than good? are constantly swirling around in my head. I still haven’t come up with any answers, but lately I’ve been feeling optimistic. With that in mind, I’d like to share one of many interesting  conversations I’ve had recently. It may not offer any answers, but that I feel like it highlights the complexity and the opportunities in development here in Burkina.

The conversation was between me and a high school student named Dieudonné (which means God given) while in Dargo this week, just after he watched me finish labouring my little okra field…

Dieudonné: Great job with your field – as you can see, life here in Burkina is hard! We work in the fields all day in the hot sun, and then have to go home at night and study. By the end of the day you’re so tired you can’t even concentrate on your studies!

Five years ago, before we got electricity in Dargo, we would work all day and then would have to study with a flashlight! Even now, the electricity in town is out for hours almost every day. 

Me: I can’t imagine working all day in the hot sun like that! I’m pretty sure I would melt! …I have been noticing that a lot of kids in Burkina are going to school these days – I don’t think I’ve even met one kid who doesn’t go to school since I’ve been here! 

Dieudonné: Yeah, today if you head out into even the smallest villages, if you see five children, four of them are probably going to school. The children who don’t go to school don’t go because the family can’t afford to send all of their kids to school, so some have to stay behind. 

Me: It seems that education has really increased here over the last few decades! In many of the villages I have been to, few or none of the adults can even read or write – yet most of the kids can.

The other day at one of the Farmer’s Unions presentations, each of the participants needed to fill out an information form, and we had to fill out the forms one by one aloud because no one was able to do it themselves. The process took a lot longer than it would have if everyone could read and write.

Dieudonné: Twenty years ago, if you went to the village and saw five children, I bet not even one of them went to school. 

Me: How big are the classes these days? Are there more teachers now that there are more students? 

Dieudonné: Sometimes there are 40 or 50 students in a class. There aren’t always enough teachers at the schools – we have lots of school buildings, but sometimes there aren’t any teachers available to work there. But what can we do? At least many of us get the opportunity to go to school now.

Since we started using donkeys and bovine to labour our fields, families can afford a few less hands in the fields, and even have some money left over to pay for school fees for their kids. 

Me: Wow! All that because you started using donkeys to labor your fields? 

Dieudonné: When the idea first came up of using livestock to labor our fields, many of the adults and elders didn’t like the idea – they said that the donkeys would get tired just like people do. However, after trying it out, we realized that a donkey could work twice as much land in a day as a person could.

Me: One thing that I really love about Burkinabè culture is that you have a lot of respect for elders and the wisdom and knowledge they hold. That is something we are really missing in Canada, which I want to try and incorporate more into my life back home.

At the same time, a youth oriented culture also has its benefits, as it allows for a lot of innovation to happen – just look at what happened when you started using donkeys in your fields! It seems to me that there needs to be a balance between respect for elders and openness to youthful innovation.

Dieudonné: That’s exactly what youth in Burkina today are trying to create! We see that when we innovate, our lives improve and we have more opportunities. Now that we use livestock, laboring our fields is a lot faster – what holds us up now is the seeding process –  it’s still slow and old-fashioned.

Me: Hmmm… you know what? I’m coming back to Dargo in July. I am going to challenge you to invent a new tool or seeding system that will be faster than the traditional system. Try and come up with something that could actually be built using materials here in Dargo, for not too much money. I’ll invent my own new system too, and when I get back, we can compare our ideas and see what happens! (I am volunteering here with Engineers Without Borders, after all!)

Dieudonné: You’re serious? (he was looking at me like I was totally crazy at this point) Ok, you’re on.

Me: Awesome, see you in two weeks!

I would now like to invite each of you to invent your own seeding machine/tool/system – draw, scan & send it to my email  – Chelsea.p.keenan@gmail.com.

A bit of reflection

This conversation made me feel optimistic about development in Burkina Faso, but particularly about development initiated by Burkinabès themselves. What did you feel when reading this conversation?

Thanks again for reading! Loving all your comments!

Chelsea

Lately in Boulsa life has been good. The mangoes are ripe, I’ve got myself a bike to ride around on, and World Cup is in full swing (and can be seen playing on every television set from here to Timbuktu…literally!). I’ve been keeping myself busy with work and many other fun activities that I’ve come up with.

One of my favorite activities: spending time with Jacques, my friend Pascaline's 4 month old son.

 

Last night I mustered up enough courage to take on the Burkinabè kitchen, and made crepes for my family. I had brought a bottle of maple syrup with me, and so I thought I’d put it to good use. Everyone said they liked the crepes, but I bet what really entertained them was watching the silly Canadian girl get covered from head to toe in flour and eggs  as she tried her hardest to produce something resembling food for the large family (at one point I actually exploded an egg in my hand and it went everywhere!).

All the kids wanted to help me make crepes

 

In fact, I think that having a nasara (white person) around has been quite amusing for the Zongo family, as I’m always bringing home random new ways of entertaining myself. The other day, inspired by all those buff World Cup players, I bought a few meters of rope that I thought I would use as a skipping rope. No sooner did I pull out the rope to try and get a little exercise did my host mom show up and tell me that she bet she could jump more times than I could. I took her bet, and handed over the rope. Half an hour later a jump rope competition was in full swing, as sons, daughters, cousins and aunts were all trying their hand at skipping, with varying levels of success. I didn’t get my workout in that night, but I ended up with a lot of laughs and some awesome action shots on my camera!

Trying my hardest to keep up in our jump rope competition

The kids and teenagers are also getting a kick out of learning how to play the guitar and use my camera.

My host sister Mamounata helping her cousin play the guitar

Now that I’ve got a bike, I’ve also been getting out to visit friends a lot. From grabbing a Fanta on a hot night, to watching Ghana beat Serbia in the first round (woot woot!), there is always something to do, or someone to see!

Out on the town (aka. drinking Fanta at the local watering hole) on Friday night!

Overall, I’m in good health, have lots of energy, and am finally feeling like I am settling into life in Burkina!

Its all good!

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Dargo, a small village 30 kilometers from the town where I live. At one o’clock I hopped on a bus to leave Boulsa, and by two I had arrived in Dargo, been picked up by a work colleague and was being whisked away on a moped to go watch Tinda, my work counterpart, present a workshop to a group of women about how to effectively plan their farming activities.

It’s hard to explain how awkward it feels to be a stranger entering an African village meeting, not speaking the language, knowing that all eyes are on you, the only nasara in town (nasara: white person). As I walked up to the group, thirty heads turned towards me. Following a short silence, a couple of women piped up with some jovial comments, which I could not understand, but which made the rest of the women lapse into fits of giggling. Well… at least I can make them laugh, I think. Awwkwwaaarddddd…

I utter a nervous Mooré greeting to the group, feeling my cheeks turning red, and rush over to take the seat that Tinda has saved for me – front and center. Well, at least if everyone is going to be staring at me, I won’t be able to see them! The training continues for several minutes, and I try to concentrate on picking up some Mooré words as Tinda speaks, but I slowly start spending more and more time watching two tiny toddlers kicking a ball back and fourth a few feet away. They can barely walk, and they can already play soccer better than me!, I think to myself.

My thoughts are interrupted when Tinda tells me that it is time to present myself to the group. I haven’t yet mastered the Burkinabè introduction (it always seems I give either too much information, or not enough!), so I tell him to go ahead and introduce me in Mooré. He spends 5 minutes telling them about me (He knows 5 minutes worth of stuff to tell about me? I wonder. I can’t even think of 5 minutes of stuff to say about myself!), and at the end the women start clapping, and present me with 500 francs (about a dollar) as a welcome gift, so that I can buy myself a Fanta. This is a prime example of Burkinabè hospitality – people will give you the shirt off their back, even when they have nothing. (As another example, the following day I accompanied Tinda while he ran the same workshop in another village, and the group gave me a live chicken as a welcome gift! I later learned that this is the traditional Burkinabè gift to a visitor.)

The next few days in Dargo were filled with exciting new experiences:

I learned how to prepare Neiré sauce, a thick, viscous sauce made from the seeds of a local tree. I even got to pound some of the ingredients into powder

I got to work in the fields, tilling the soil with a hoe to prepare for seeding (and I have the blisters to prove it!).

I learned the names of all seven kids that live with Tinda (his two sons, plus five of his nieces and nephews, who have been sent to live with him so that they can attend the local school).

I tried Dolo, the local cider made from maize, which is actually quite yummy (unfortunately I spent the entire next day hugging the proverbial porcelain, so I probably won’t be drinking Dolo again anytime soon…!).

But the most exciting thing that happened in Dargo is that my work really got started! While Tinda initially told me that he would like me to work with him to improve his computer skills, he quickly turfed that idea when I mentioned that it might be interesting for us to organize and run a trial cooperative sales venture this year.

“So, when can we get started on planning that cooperative sale idea you had?” he said to me during lunch on my second day in Dargo. My heart pretty much leapt out of my chest – could this be true? Tinda, the President of the local Union, is so motivated to take on this project that he is actually pushing me to get started?!

“Oh, yeah,” I said, trying my hardest to play it cool, “we can start that this afternoon, if you want.” Deep down I was jumping up and down like a puppy waiting for its owner to throw the ball.

So, over the next couple of days we spent hours racking our brains to map out what a the initiative might look like, looking at local prices, potential buyers, calculating interest rates, costs and potential profits, and figuring out what steps we needed to take to make this project happen.

I thank the universe every night for setting me up with such an inspiring, motivated and capable working partner. I only hope I can keep up!

Thanks for reading! Sorry there are no photos – my camera battery died on the bus ride to Dargo!

– Chels

Firstly, again, I apologize for the novel. I hope you will forgive me…I have been mulling for days over how to explain the work I am going to be doing here in the province of Namentenga. A last minute change of plans meant that I would be living in a town (Boulsa) different from the one I am supposed to be working in (Dargo). In the coming weeks I expect I will be commuting to Dargo often in order to carry out my work there,  but what this means for now is that what I am supposed to be doing is different from what I am actually doing now. But either way, the work is incredibly interesting!

…DISCLAIMER: Everything I have written below is my doe-eyed interpretation of the work being done in Burkina. I am probably wrong about most of it, and my story will surely change as days go by…

All the work revolves around the idea that if farmers treat their family farms more like businesses (by implementing activities such as business planning, harvest forecasting and accounting into their farming process) they will be able to make better decisions, and thus earn better profits at the end of each season.

What I am currently doing

Reading a LOT – From documents about EWB’s strategy in Burkina Faso, to documents from our partner, the Professional Farmers Association of BF, to a book about entrepreneurship (called The E-Myth – definitely worth reading!) – And learning a LOT.

Helping my coach, Nasser, with his work – Since he also lives in Boulsa, I’ve been working closely with Nasser, my Engineers Without Borders coach (EWB code for manager, friend, boss, mentor etc). I participated in a 2-day workshop that he ran in the local high school, which teaches students about how business principles can apply to their family farms.

At the same time, I helped develop a feedback questionnaire and a feedback tracking spreadsheet for the workshops, to help improve the workshops as we go (we will hopefully do more of these high school workshops in the future).

Developing IT training tools – This was the first need that Tieda, my working partner in Dargo, identified when I met him earlier this week. I am learning as I go about all the wonders of Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

Finally, asking a LOT of questions, having a lot of “aha” moments, and exploring the opportunities that exist here in the province of Namentenga.

 

What I will eventually be doing 

Working with partners from the Professional Farmers Association of Burkina Faso to develop business skills and tools to better support their members in working towards treating their farms more like businesses.

This would mean supporting the planning of new services such as:

–         Cash advances and micro loans to farmers

–         Cooperative selling – not sure what the term is in English, but basically this is where the Association buys crops from its members at the time of the harvest (when farmers generally need cash), and then sells the products when the prices are higher, and then the farmers and the Association split the difference.

–         Scaled-up “Agriculture as a Business” training programs (the Association is already running this training program on a small scale). 

And running workshops and training sessions about:

–         How to develop a business plan

–         Management skills

–         Creating accountability within an organization

Err… which means I have to learn how to do all this stuff! I really have my work cut out for me.

 

And a quick life update…

I moved in with (what I thought was) a large family (13 people), only to find out 3 days later that, as luck would have it, that particular family was involved with the rival association to the association I am working with… 

So, I was told that I “should probably” (read: have to) move, and that the ideal place would be to move in with the President of my host organization. What this means is that this afternoon I will be moving in with a new (and ACTUALLY large) family, which consists of a husband, his 6 wives and his 27 kids! Can’t wait to see how this plays out!

That’s all for now, thanks for reading!!!

– Chels

Charles-Etienne and I, animating a practice run of a workshop on how to develop a business plan. Ouagadougou, May, 2010.

Over the five days that I have spent in Ouagadougou, the hot and chaotic capital of Burkina Faso, I have been reminded of many of the small things that make life in Burkina Faso so wonderful, so interesting, and so challenging. After being away from the country for over 3 years, I had forgotten about many of these unique characteristics. 

Here is a list of the top 10 things I was reminded of upon arriving back in Burkina Faso:

10. The heat – being constantly covered in sweat from head to toe was not a feeling easily forgotten, but somehow I managed to convince myself it wouldn’t be as hot this time around. I was wrong. The overpowering heat slows the pace of life quite a bit, and every night I find myself wondering where the day went, as I feel like I haven’t accomplished nearly as much as I could have back home.

9. The smell – a sweet, comforting mix of smoky outdoor cooking, popular ‘BF’ laundry detergent, motorcycle emissions and Sanitex soap (‘imported from Jakarta’ boasts the label). I would never have realized that Burkina had this smell had I not come back and recognized it.

8. The maragouyas – a maragouya is a small lizard that is either green, beige, or bright red and black, depending on its sex. They are everywhere, and I’m sure I’ve wasted many hours this week watching them chase each other around the yard.

7. The thin layer of dust that covers everything, including my body – most Burkinabès wash at least a couple times a day to deal with this. As I have not found much time to shower lately, I am quickly earning myself a reputation as a dirty, smelly Canadian.

6. Babies who want to shake your hand – the handshake is one of the most important parts of the Burkinabè greeting, so kids learn it from a very young age.

5. Babies who cry when they see you – OK, I know I’m a bit pasty, but it’s not exactly a confidence booster…

4. Mosquito nets (or ‘net cages’, as Anne Marie likes to call them) – great for keeping the mosquitoes out, and also for keeping the cockroaches in (boo!)

3. The sounds of the night – crickets, birds and lizards, chirping, singing and croaking

2. The food – I could never have imagined I would crave a dish containing only flour and water, but since arriving all I have wanted to do is dig into a big bowl of tô. Tô is kinda like Jello, only its made with flour instead of gelatin powder, and you eat it with yummy sauces like Okra sauce, Baobab leaf sauce **my fave**, and peanut butter sauce.

1. The people – You are never alone in Burkina Faso. Everywhere you look, people are interacting, helping each other, discussing the latest news, and calling out “NASARA! Vien ici!” (white person, come here!). Burkinabès are lively, friendly and respectful people, so making friends is easy and fun.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Boulsa, in the province of Namentenga, to begin my work placement, so you can expect to learn a lot more about my work in Burkina from now on! For now, my spirits are high, my body temperature is even higher, and I’m ready to start my work for the summer!