Sunday, October 29, 2006

I was hoping to post a picture of our stand at SIAO. But, as is frequently the case, Blogspot is having problems and it is impossible to add pics today.
It was NOT easy to get that stand installed, I assure you! I arrived at SIAO early Friday morning, but nothing went right. Valentine, Eugenie and I searched for an hour, but couldn't find a stand assigned to Papiers du Sahel. Then I began networking with the other vendors. The word was out that lots of the stands were being "hijacked". Artisans who hadn't paid the hugely expensive fee were tearing the names off stands and taking them over. One vendor told me to give up looking for our "official" stand and just take over an empty one. But this seemed unreasonable. We had paid 600$ US for a proper stand and setting up in one that belonged to someone else seemed like a stupid move. So, I spent hours finding the site manager and then following him around demanding something be done. And I wasn't the only one. There were many VERY irate artisans from all over Africa all demanding answers. They were from a multitude of ethnic groups, some even traditional enemies, but all were united in their hatred of the SIAO administration. Valuable hours were passing and many people had nowhere to set up. I tried to convince the manager just to provide us with a keyed map. We could then each find our own stand and politely evict any interlopers. I was informed that this was impossible, as none of the computers were working. No maps could be printed.
Why didn't the computers work? Because all of the electricity in the admin building was shut down.
Why was the electricity off? Because a huge show was being put on for the First Minister and other VIPs in the central courtyard. To run the PA system, lights, etc, all power had to be off elsewhere on the site.
So, nothing at all could be done until noon, when the bigshots would leave.
Once I understood all this, I really lost my temper. Why is there money for this stupid song and dance show, but none to pay someone to oversee the artisans as they install their stands? A whole day is being wasted so that the elites can be entertained. Meanwhile, we are wondering how we will ever sell enough to pay for the stand and still make a profit....
We finally found our site by ourselves, as we got no help. Some Malians had halfheartedly piled up a few bags in it and hidden our name under a piece of cloth. But I very politely pointed out their mistake and they left for easier pickings. Some venders were not as lucky and ended up in fistfights with the interlopers.
Of course, the official discourse that we hear daily on the radio says that SIAO is going splendidly.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The SIAO is a huge event here in Ouaga and will consume my life for the next ten days.
It happens every even numbered year here in Burkina and as it's been going on for 20 years now, you wouldn't think it would catch anyone by surprise. But somehow it does. When I went to pick up the ID badges for us Papiers du Sahel folks, I saw trouble looming on the horizon. Only three days left before the big event and NOTHING was ready. The workers looked very relaxed and leisurely, but even I could see that the pace would need to pick up dramatically to be ready for the vendors to set up on Thursday....And, as I predicted, NOTHING was ready today. I knew better than to show up this morning, but in a fit of optimism, I loaded up the truck (with lots of help, of course). The Land Cruiser was loaded to the roof rack with shelves, boxes and metal chests full of recycled paper. But it was a waste of time. At 4pm half the stands weren't even built yet and the ones that were ready weren't numbered yet. So, soldiers guarded the doors and the crowd in the courtyard grew and grew as arrivals from all over Africa tried to access the site. I waited for about two and a half hours and there was no sign of progress. I finally lugged everything back home, feeling even more sorry for all the vendors stuck out there. There were hundreds of people camped outside on piles of masks, bronzes, fabrics, beads....It was quite a sight. Most of them have nowhere in Ouaga to store all the stuff, or even a means to transport it if they did. (Most arrived by bus) They will have to stay there all night, guarding their goods.
I plan to get an early start tomorrow. With Valentine helping out, Eugenie and I should be able to get the stand looking good in a few hours. I will be sure and post some pictures.
It really is an amazing event. Wish you were here!

Monday, October 23, 2006

What’s worse than getting malaria ? Getting malaria PLUS typhoid fever, that’s what. Take it from one who knows.
Last Sunday, I was happy checking my emails and contemplating writing a new blog entry, when I began feeling funny. Then I felt funnier. I laid down on the couch to watch a dvd with Severin with the idea that I’d just wait it out. Chills, severe stomach pain, lightheadedness…..something I ate? Anyway, I was convinced that watching Tom Cruise frown his way through the end of the world was going to cure me. You will no doubt be shocked to learn that it didn’t. JP came home from work (yes, the man works Sunday mornings) and found me decidedly feverish and pain-ridden. I still didn’t want to go to the doctor, but he insisted.
I wasn’t happy. The emergency room on a Sunday morning? Much too dramatic for me. Such a bother for the doctor. And there was nothing wrong with me that a bit of rest wouldn’t cure. Right? Wrong. I was pretty quickly diagnosed with two major illnesses, was given an IV full of quinine and antibiotics and a private hospital room.
This was at Clinique Les Genets, the smartest private clinic in all of Burkina. No cracked vinyl mattresses there. I had air con, a private bath and satellite tv, not that I did much tv viewing. I slept almost constantly for three days. My room was the Milou Room (Tintin’s little dog, for those of you that don’t read Belgian comic books.) It’s mainly a pediatric/maternity hospital, so all the rooms are called after cartoon characters. The Milou room is right between Snow White and The Little Mermaid. Actually, it’s the same room I had last January when I spent a week hospitalized with malaria. They should probably just go ahead and put my name on the door. I’ll probably be back, with my luck.
So, there I was. Not delirious, but definitely out of it. The door to my room opened and a swarthy, round, very short middle-aged man popped his head through the door. Definitely not my Burkinabé doctor or nurse. He excused himself and explained that he was visiting a friend next door and had mixed up the rooms. Fine. Go away.
A few hours later, the nurse escorted this same fellow back into my room. He introduced himself, inquired after my health and offered to do anything he could for my comfort. “I am at your service”. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. But he was real enough.
“No. I’m fine. I just need to rest.” Hint, hint.
“Yes, yes. I will be leaving you now then. But if there is anything, you have only to ask.”
OK. Weird, but nice enough. Whatever. Glad that’s over.
Well, guess who showed up in my room the next day? First the nurse came in, followed by my short pal plus a new guy in a very elegant suit. He introduced himself as the Libyan ambassador. He was delighted to meet me. He was ready to do anything to promote my health and happiness. “Is there some food you would like? Some reading materials? Anything at all? You have only to say” This was beyond strange. Until recently, US citizens weren’t even allowed into the frighteningly elegant Hotel Libya, an imposing edifice paid for by Colonel al-Qaddafi himself. (For your entertainment, here’s a quote from one of the Great Man’s speeches: " Now, America is stepping all over the world with its shoes. It is not afraid or ashamed and has no conscience. It scares everyone, and they fire missiles while they are drunk, and it sets the price of bread in the world. It orders the World Bank and the IMF to set the price of bread in Jordan. It tells them to raise it by 300 percent, and that happens.[passage omitted: more on US dominance over world economy]” I like the bit about the shoes. Question: Would it be better or worse if we stepped on the world barefoot?)
I vaguely wondered if the Ambassador had mistaken me for one of his compatriots in distress. “Do I look Libyan when I’m sick?” I thought to myself. Or maybe I look Swedish. Everybody likes Swedes.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you so much. My husband will be here soon with everything I need.”
They finally left and I had the presence of mind to tell the nurse to PLEASE quit bringing random people into my room.
As I got better, I thought more about my visitors. I became convinced that my Libyan friends had thought that I was a friendless, elderly lady that had been left alone to fend for herself in a foreign hospital. Have I mentioned that getting malaria and typhoid makes you look really hideous? ( Just yesterday I had a visitor here at home who said to me, and I quote: “Oh my! You look terrible!” )
When I told JP my strange story, though, he was convinced that the gentlemen had been smitten by my charms. Only a man who truly loves me could think such a thing. He also pointed out that it was a shame that I hadn’t mentioned to the Ambassador that we could really use a new car. Sadly, I was drugged out of my mind and not thinking very fast. I also have to admit that, charming as my dear spouse may find me, I think the most I could have gotten out of the deal was probably a slightly-used copy of Paris Match.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My mildy amusing blog is taking a sharp turn in another direction today. I just don’t feel all that amused. In fact I’m completely disgusted. So, today’s topic is: “Why Does Africa Suck and Who Are the REAL Racists?” . Quite a change from “My Adventures with Lizard Poop”, but there you go. Just call me thrillingly unpredictable.
Africa is mostly poor. Burkina is extremely poor. I went into that a few weeks ago in a blog entry. It’s the third worst place in the world: Public schools here so crowded that there are sometimes 300 kids in a single classroom. Most people have no access to health care and live on less than 1$ per day. 30% of all children under age 4 are clinically malnourished…..
The West sends aid. There are hundreds of NGO’s in Ouaga alone. You can’t cross the street without nearly getting hit by a big shiny Toyota Landcruiser full of “experts”. The money pours in. Where does it go? Well, but the truth is that the aid doesn’t all go where it’s supposed to. .You know, as far as I can tell, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world that has been left out of the worldwide rise in prosperity over the past few decades. And smarter folks than me (like this guy)have homed in on the problem: state failure in general, and the failure of African leadership in particular. It’s the African elite. The best and brightest that were supposed to lead everybody OUT of this goddamned mess.
Let me give a couple of examples, so nobody thinks I'm ranting with no basis in fact. When I first arrived in Burkina, I had a friend who was a doctor for the US government, working on the polio immunization campaign here. High government officials told him that the project “needed” to have T-SHIRTS printed up. This work would be done at a high price by a business owned by the wife of one of the ministers: all to be paid for by project money intended to buy vaccines for Burkinabé children and get the vaccines out to the isolated villages. My friend is an upright guy and wouldn’t bend to the pressure. His tires were slashed. He received threats. The Burkinabé government complained that he was “hard to work with”. He was not supported by the USA. The elites wanted somebody who would “get along” with the local power structure. My friend was sent back to the US.
Another story: I spent a lot of time working with malnourished children at Yalgado National Hospital. The pediatric unit is a series of low, metal-roofed sheds where the children lie on cracked vinyl mattresses. The lucky ones are in there. The others sleep outside on plastic mats on the cement. Shade and protection from rain is provided by sheets of metal set up on poles. So, when I say “hospital”, it’s probably not the kind of hospital you are thinking of…Now, in a Burkinabé hospital, food is not included. If you want to eat during your stay, you have to have someone bring it to you from outside. Fortunately, at Yalgado, they do have a CREN unit- it’s a center that makes and gives food to malnourished children staying in the hospital. I got to be good friends with the head nurse of the CREN. As I watched their work, I couldn’t help but ask why there was not often oil in the food for the children. Fat is the main nutrient missing in their diets. I was told that groups like USAID send oil, but it is siphoned off by people in some Ministry and sold to line pockets.
So, right here we have: 1. Rich people that want to obtain money meant to buy polio vaccine for poor children and 2. Rich people that steal food meant for starving babies. These are the people in charge. Think about it.
I OFTEN think about this sickening, destructive African elite behaviour. Through more than seven years of observation, I have come to this conclusion: in a world of massive global inequalities the elites have (I’m going to generalize like mad from here on out. Of course there are exceptions, just not many) been much more concerned with getting hyper-luxurious western material standards of living and consumption for themselves than with undertaking the difficult and frustrating long term task of effectively overseeing the development of their countries. What gets called 'corruption' (which usually means looting the public founding in one way or another) is just a quick short cut to providing for a few what would otherwise take decades, or even centuries, to even approximate for the many. This short-cut seems perfectly legit to the elites: the colonial past and trashy tv have exposed African people to "capitalism as a mode of consumption" but not as a mode of production". They ended up learning tons about the consumer goodies of capitalist enterprise ( bring on the Hummers!) and not so much about the organizational requirements and the hard work involved.
The answer SO obvious, right? Just kick them out! And get the donors to stop pumping in the money! Get the donors to supervise more closely the uses the money is put to. But none of this will happen. Why? Racism.
Just yesterday, I was complaining to someone about the Burkinabé elite- how the President and his cronies live in luxury while the vast majority of people here lack clean water, electricity, and health care. The man I was speaking to is the spouse of a woman prominent in some Bretton Woods institution. This will blow your mind: He was defending the Burkinabé elites! They are all fine people doing a great job! Why, they spend LOTS of money on education. If there are 300 kids in a class, well, that just means that these darn people have too many kids (I SWEAR he said that! I am NOT making this up!!!) I mildly pointed out that the President just built himself an extravagant new palace outside of town. Maybe the head of such a desperately poor country should be less ostentatious? He told me that the Burkinabé people need to have pride in their President! He is a symbol of their country and he needs to have a nice house!!!. ( Right. I have noticed all those groups of starving beggars touring the elite neighbourhoods with smiles on their faces, because they are so darn happy that the government big-shots all have REALLY nice three-story homes to live in. Too bad they don’t let the folks in to have a good look at the pool and watch some satellite TV. At any rate, it sure seems to cheer them up. They may be hungry, but they are chock-full of national pride.) I tried to tell this guy what I’ve seen in my many years here working with the average (read: poor) Burkinabé. But he’s been here two years, going to elegant dinner parties with the rich and famous, and knows it all. The elites TELL him they are nice people and have the best interests of the poor at heart. And he believes them. Because they said so. Hmmmm ….He likes these folks because they are nice to him (VERY nice, his wife is a bigshot in the cooperation world remember?) and they have very good champagne from France. What’s not to like? And don’t forget, they are convincing. Above all, they are politicians at heart. Facts mean nothing and they will say anything to convince you that they are in the right.
And you know what? You can find plenty of (I’m gonna say it) white donors that swallow all the crap. Why? Racism.
Think about this: When I complain to Mr Bretton Woods about President Bush, that’s fine. And I’ll tell you, I am viscous about the man and his fat-cat cronies. I’ll say even meaner things about them than I do about the Burkinabé government. I don’t think Bush gives a damn about poor Americans…..and if I go on about what I think of him, this blog entry will NEVER end! The point is, you can complain that US or European elites have no care for the general welfare of the people, and that’s perfectly OK. But the minute you criticize African elites, you get a bunch of people jumping down your throat, saying that they are saints. White people are corrupt and evil, but never black ones. It’s crazy and completely racist. What is racism? When you judge people outside of your own group using different (usually lower) standards, right? Well, that seems like exactly what many of the donors from the developed world do. They do not hold these people up to the same standards as they would white leaders. Racism.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

When I first moved to Burkina, I expected to be surrounded by bugs: mosquitos, spiders and, above all, huge cockroaches. All of these creatures figured greatly in my short stay in Burkina in 1994, so I was braced for more of the same.
But it turned out that these creatures would be the least of my worries. The houses here are all infested by geckos. Perhaps you know these creatures from the much-admired US insurance company ads? They are pale, gummy-looking things with sticky, splayed feet. They spend all day hiding under picture frames and behind the furniture, defecating on the walls. Then they emerge at night to make bizarre clicking sounds and eat their weight in bugs.
After we’d lived in our house here for a few days, I told JP that we’d have to move. “They can have the house”, I said. “They were here first and are welcome to it.” I was seriously creeped out. Every time I inadvertently disturbed one during the day, I’d do a little hop and shriek dance. I had constant visions of them sneaking under the mosquito net covering the twins’ bed and crawling all over my sweet little babies. Lizards are SO not supposed to live in peoples’ houses.
JP pointed out that ALL the houses here had geckos, making it useless to move. So, I tried to solve the problem. Just so you know, do NOT get an exterminator to come and fumigate your geckos. The beasts will crawl into inaccessible spaces in your home, die and then decompose over the period of about a month (depending if it’s dry or rainy season) This does not smell good. Just telling you.
Gradually, I came to accept the geckos and even appreciate them. This came about due to several factors: 1.Geckos have absolutely no interest in crawling on human babies. Unless the babies are covered in bugs, in which case geckos are probably the least of your problems. 2. I am not in charge of cleaning gecko poo off the walls. Plus, it is rather dry, crumbly stuff that isn’t smelly or all that messy, once you get right down to it. 3. They EAT mosquitos (that give you deadly malaria), flies (that spread filth) and cockroaches (that I hate beyond anything). This is all good! 4. Their little faces are actually kind of cute.
I grew to eventually even LIKE geckos.
Then, one day, Valentine found a little abandoned kitten in a shed behind our house. She bottle fed him and he grew into a big, macho, hunting-oriented cat. The kind of cat that would hang out in the garage with you and drink a can of Budweiser, if you were interested in that sort of thing. Suddenly, after four years in Ouaga, we had hardly any geckos in the house- just a few in the bedrooms where the cat wasn’t allowed. The cat also turned out to be a hunter of cockroaches. Venturing into the kitchen at night, I was always sure to have either a can of Raid or the cat with me as protection. And Gaspar Kitty also rid the yard of the giant rats that roam the neighbourhood at night. He even left a decapitated one in the middle of the garden path one morning, just to show he was on the job.
When a little stray momma cat and her baby showed up here a year ago, I felt so sorry for her. JP wanted none of it-said there were already too many animals around here, what with the turtles and rabbits. But cats are useful! So now we have two patrolling the house and property, keeping us safe from the creepier local fauna.

Friday, October 06, 2006

As you may or may not know, Valentine has her own blog. In one recent post, she ridiculed (very gently) the sub-par English of her English teacher at the French school. A friend then pointed out to me that the English that Valentine writes in her blog is, well, a tad unusual. It may seem strange, as she learned English from me, starting in infancy. Though we lived in Switzerland when she was born and then later moved to France, I always spoke to her in English. No way was I talking to my baby in a foreign language! But that led to a huge battle when it was time to put her in nursery school. In France, free public pre-school begins at age 3. But Valentine didn’t speak all that much French. It was ok, but her English was WAY better. (When she was that age, she got car sick a lot. Once when we were on a mountain road, I handed her a bag to throw up in. She said : “Ooh- a transparent bag! What a bad idea!” Showing both a good vocabulary and a refined sense of aesthetics.) I ended up in a big argument with the principal of the school, who said that I should stop speaking English to my child and switch to French only. That sounded like about the dumbest thing I ever heard and I said so. And so it went. Suffice it to say, that I ignored her and did it my way. As a result Valentine and the other three kids are perfectly at home in both French and English.
But it’s true that their English is a tiny bit odd. I think it’s the result of French influencing their English. When Valentine writes “ I proposed Zoe a doll” , that is a too literal translation of the French verb “proposer” (to offer).
Severin came to me a few days ago and asked “Is it possible that we go pick up Daniel?” It seems to me that a “normal” nine year old boy would just say “Can we go pick up Daniel?”
At lunch yesterday, Mallory said “He scares me. I don’t wish to approach him”.
Examples abound. The thing is, I don’t often correct the kids’ English unless it is obviously wrong. I find their rather original verbal constructions have a charm and dignity to them.
Then there are all the expressions that they pick up from me. They don’t have many English-speakers around them, and no tv shows to sway them. So, they are mainly influenced by me.
“That’s disturbing” Severin says.
“Oh my goodness!” Mallory exclaims “You are acting like a crazy nut!”
“Everybody scramble into the car!” Alexa exhorts.
All trademark Beth phrases.
They don’t sound like they grew up in Nebraska. I think the many years abroad have pretty much ironed the Great Plains out of my accent, so they sound pretty neutral. Except for Alexa, who my mom SWEARS sounds just like Leslie Caron.
The kids have ended up with excellent French, despite the major misgivings of Valentine’s first principal. People that speak French with them never guess that English is their first language. (But they do speak like French kids raised in Africa)
They switch easily between the two languages and read equally well in both. Writing is a bit harder in English, but Valentine actually prefers it. She’s even writing a novel! She’s been working on it for months, but won’t let anyone read it yet. I think she has about 200 pages now!!! Is that amazing, or what?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Say that you’re in charge of staffing a US Embassy in a far-away country.. You’d want adventurous people, open to change and ready for new experiences, right? Or would you staff it with people that can’t even bear to use “foreign” toilet paper? Doesn’t seem like a tough choice, does it? It seems obvious that in a logical world, you’d opt for the first kind of person. Instead, the US government seems to select people that like foreign countries only when there are extensive buffers in place… .
They come over with huge containers of stuff: cleaning products, Kleenex, toilet paper, office supplies, not to mention all those familiar US foods, especially breakfast cereal. When they run out, they order more through the diplomatic pouch, so they never pay overseas postage charges or customs fees. I assure you that there are locally produced, low-cost cleaning products, facial tissues and food here. There is also a wealth of French and Lebanese products available. It’s just not what you’d get back in the USA.
Now, in a way, I understand the attraction. When I get a hold of a blue box of Kraft Mac and cheese, my heart gives a little jolt at sight of this relic of “home”. Ranch salad dressing positively gives me palpitations. The thing is, I’m not sure it is good to be here if you are the kind of person that constantly needs to be surrounded by these kind of reminders of the comforts of the USA. I imagine that it is reassuring to have a storeroom stocked with all the products you grew up with, even though you are 4000 miles away from your homeland. But if you need that, why did you ever go? Are you leaving room for anywhere else to become at least “homelike”? Isn’t being an expat all about seeing how other people live? And if you don’t try to actually get out and live some of it yourself, you may as well stay Stateside and watch Discovery Channel. One part of living the adventure is shopping in the market and getting used to “strange” food. “Odd” tastes become familiar, “clashing” colors start to look good together, “pointless” customs start to make sense. It’s what it’s all about, living here.
But, in fact, the Embassy staff don’t even breathe the same air as the rest of us. Their electricity is directly paid by the government- they don’t ever even see the bills.. This encourages them to think like real upper-class Americans and leave on the air-con at home 24/7. They can go straight from home, to car to Embassy and back again without having to experience the local climate. Sounds incredibly comfortable, but very isolating.
Understand, I’m not hating on US Embassy staff. The ones I’ve met over the last seven years, I’ve liked well enough. I am just not understanding the logic behind how the US Government has them living overseas. The conditions are excessively sheltered and the postings are too short - on average 2 years. And I know from experience that it takes two years just to begin to feel at home in a new country. The brevity of the stay and the cultural isolation encouraged make me suspect the motives of the powers that be. My theory is that they don’t want to attract the type of person that can immerse themselves in another culture. They want Americans who are going to stay “American”. They don’t want the kind of people who can live without White Cloud toilet paper for two years. They want folks that run no risk of finding anything in a foreign country to be as good as what they have back home. Are they afraid of them “going native?” Got me.
Alternative viewpoints are welcome in the comments section below. If anybody thinks they can make me understand the logic behind all this, please do.