Thursday, April 10, 2008

I got the French friends safely to the airport last night, in plenty of time for their flight. Not that it was easy. About five minutes down the road, I got a flat tire. It's the fifth one in the last five weeks. ("Gee Beth. Does the Car God hate you?" "Why, yes, He does. Thank you for asking.")
I stopped the car immediately, but it was SO freaking dark we couldn't see a thing. Ouagadougou is not rich in street lamps. I was forced to drive on a bit to get in front of a lighted building.
Luckily, my French dudes are do-it-yourself marvels. M. mostly built his own house back in France- and it's a really nice house! While staying at my house, L. fixed the plumbing in his spare time. I am not kidding.

So, these guys had the tire changed in about ten minutes, which was amazing, considering that all their baggage had to be unloaded so they could get at the spare. And while we had positioned ourselves to get some light, it was still pretty dim. This was a problem, as I have no flashlight in my car. Maybe that seems like a basic safety thing to people living elsewhere in the world, but it is impossible to manage here. I have put flashlights into my car three times while we've lived here. After a few months, the flashlight is gone and NOBODY has a clue as to where it could possibly be. They are obviously being stolen and after the third one, I gave up. )
But the guys were brilliant and had the tire changed in a jiff. We got to the airport in plenty of time. Goodbyes were't too sad, as they are our neighbors back in the village of Saint André and we're moving back there in July. I'll be seeing them again soon.

I have a few more responses to the comments section. Again, I'm posting them here, as they could be useful or interesting to others.

1. Yesterday, in my enthusiasm for lower-body coverings I completely forgot to mention the whole shirt issue. So, here it is: It's hard for women to go wrong with upper body clothing here. If you went topless in a village, you'd draw a crowd- but it would be because you are a foreigner, not because they are amazed/shocked/excited/offended/freaked out to see a (gasp!) breast or two. It's an attitude that I find very sensible and think should be emulated world-wide.

But the average non-Burkinabe is not going to be at ease waltzing around the countryside topless, so let's move on.

T-shirts are always good. Can't go wrong.
Tank tops, sleeveless, form-fitting, lowcut, are all perfectly acceptable, when paired with a modest lower-body covering. No problem. Even visible bra straps are not an eyebrow-raiser.

The only exception would be for people working with local Protestant groups: missions, churches, aid associations linked to churches. I have found that these people are more in tune with conservative western standards of dress. It's better to cover the shoulders and go with a full-coverage neckline.

Bear in mind that all this is my guidelines for having good, easy contact with people at ALL levels of society here. If you are only going to hang with wealthy people and expats, of course your normal developed-world dress-sense is fine. But if you are a researcher that wants to be out in a village, talking to people about health care practices, or whatever, the contact will go easier if you make an effort with the clothes.
For toursts/visitors/adventurers it is a good way to show that you respect local norms and want to make contact with "average folks"- which is sort of the point of coming, isn't it?

2. The other question I got recently went as follows:
"I was wondering about the effect of seeing so many foreigners stay for a while and then leave their country. Does it make the average Burkinabé somewhat indifferent to the strange white couple next door? Is it possible to make local acquaintances or are there too many social barriers?"

I'd say that this is FAR, FAR from the situation here. I predict that when you move here, nearly EVERYONE in your neighborhood is going to want to be your best pal. Even if you are only staying a few months. Even if you dress weird.
People here are, on the whole, very kind and welcoming and it would not occur to them to reject you because you weren't a long-term fixture. In fact, they are very interested in pen pals outside of Burkina and will keep contact with you long after you are gone.

That said, it's kind of complicated because, well, you (expat person) have "lots" of money and your neighbors probably don't.
Sure, if you live in Ouaga 2000, the very chic neighborhood, you'll find you are surrounded by only wealthy families. But all other neighborhoods are very mixed. Wealthy expats live right next door to local families that are just as wealthy or middle class or very poor.
It works out, but can very stressful.

Here's what one expat family wrote in their blog (I got this from one of John's great articles):

"After living in a place for two years, you want to feel comfortable and that you're being accepted as an equal and not just seen as a wallet with legs. But you can never be that. All I want is to be in a culture where I'm normal again. I came here wanting to drink millet beer, eat tô, and get to know Burkinabe. Now, all I want is an Anchor Steam, some Taco Bell, and to blend in."

I think it was very brave of them to articulate this so clearly. It hurts, but it's very honest and very reflective of a major aspect of life here. Burkinabe people will ask you, a foreign person, for money. Frequently. It's a big part of life. Needy people will ask you for money for food or medical care. Better off folks want money to buy a motorscooter or school fees. Everybody needs something and they hope that you are going to pay for it.

For people coming from the developed world, this can be hard to swallow. We tend to avoid mixing money and friendship at all costs. It can kind of ruin things for us, making us a little bitter and suspicious.
But in Burkina, money is part of the whole package of friendship. You have to figure out how to handle it. Which can be hard....

So, far from being met with indifference, as a new arrival in your neighborhood you will be the subject of much interest and friendly interaction. You will get invited to wedding and funerals. You will be hit up for money on a daily basis.

And, yes, it's one part of life here that I will NOT miss.


Catherine said...

Thank you so much for all of the great advice! Hopefully we will cross paths when I am in Burkina. I will be working with the L’Association Songtaab-Yalgré with the children there. Have you heard of it?

Thanks again,


Cyndy said...

Well said Beth!!!!!