Monday, September 20, 2010

Who says you can't go home again?

I try not to be an introspective blogger. Amusing anecdotes, crazy mishaps, inadvertent cultural faux pas, those are acceptable to toss up on the internet for the world to see. I shoot for ‘comically stoic’ as a medium – skipping personal triumphs as self-aggrandizing and occasional heartbreak as Sally-Struthers-esque. All of which makes this post about Burkina particularly hard. I had done quite a bit of travel in the past 10 years, but these last two weeks have been the most personally intense. Burkina is both completely different and exactly the same. An African friend described the duality to the common Western confusion between modernization and development. Yes, there is electricity and cell phones and satellite dishes and flat screens and cars where there previously had not been. But there is still the same poverty of opportunity. Village mentalities and lives are largely unchanged, even if the ornamentation has improved.

I am not sure I completely agree. Some things in Burkina have gotten better. Cell phones are everywhere – even the fous seem to have them – and the road and transportation networks are markedly improved. There are banks and ATMs in most cities and even some large villages (there were actually more in my hotel than previously in the capital city). Clean water and basic health care are more widely available. The literacy rate is still among the worst in the world – but it is ten points higher than ten years ago. Pagne pants have fallen out of fashion – meaning that today’s Burkinabe male youth look substantially less ridicules than just seven years ago.

But even with all the new bright lights and big city of the new bar strip in Kwarma N'kruma, and the massive gosplan new ‘2000’ neighborhood of condos and ministry buildings, and a new rage for constructing overpasses (including a triple-decker on the Fada road), Ouaga still feels like Ouaga. The air still smells the same – of cooking smoke, dust, humidity, peanut sauce and raw sewage. You can still get a place of riz-sauce for 100 cfa, and a cooked chicken retails for 2000 cfa (though my trip to get a poulet legendaire at Boulougou’s was thwarted by a national cooking gas crisis.) 750 ml of beer are still less than a buck (though there has been a seismic shift in beer market. Not only have two new competitors entered the scene – Beaufort and Export33 – but Brakina, the previous green bottle swamp water, has been replaced with a new brown bottle formula that tastes, dare I say it, *better* the SoBBra). Peace Corps volunteers still stock up on American whiskey and canned goods at the Marina Market, but gone are the dusty shelves and past-due expiration dates. The new Marina Market is a Burkinabe Target, encompassing three floors and selling everything from bourgeois vegetables to home furnishings. The Ouaga marché has been rebuilt after the great fire of 2003 – it is still a shit show but no longer a death trap. Fonctionnaires still wear fonctionnaire suits but it seems they are now all legislated to carry laptop bags. Taxis are no longer glorified Flintstone cars – with the worst of the worst being taken off the street. Similarly there has been a massive crackdown on tomato cans kids – I only saw a handful the entire time (including one older than I was making me think that he was not a legitimate marabou follower but rather a fou with an old can). Peanut sauce still tastes damned good. There are still rocks in the rice.

And briefly for the former denizens of Yako – Chez Abel is still alive and kicking. The catfish guy is sadly not. Yako not only has a ‘cyber center’ but the lycée has a computer center and a blog ( The upper floor of the school is structurally unsound and condemned. There are paved basketball courts. The dirt track to Koudougou is now a straight up legit road. The vulture hotel is still there but oddly there are no more vultures. The painted the mosque and it actually looks really nice. Donkeys still wake up in the morning – and inevitably you will be hungover. The new volunteer has a robinet. My elephants are still on the wall in the old house.

And finally – my friends are still there. I had fallen out of touch with most of my old colleagues but still had one or two e-mail addresses. I was worried that no one would remember me – it’s been more than seven years. But I heard back from the two and they said they would invite some of the others for drinks. Fifteen people came. (Fortunately I remembered all but one or two.) It was incredible to see everyone. To hear how well they are doing. To hear about promotions, new jobs, wives, children (including a 7 year old named Kris!). To see that they not only remembered my “il faut partager” trick with reluctant drinkers but used it on me completely successfully. To talk about the crazy old days in Yako. To just be together again.

There, you see, I made it almost all the way to the end without getting sappy. But as long as the sentimental cherry has been popped – I love you Burkina Faso.


Anonymous said...

Tears are in my eyes after that blog. I know how you feel. I'm going back to Camana, Peru to do my RN thing and I know I will feel the same way. You're happy to leave but happier still when you return. gb/csh

Doctor X said...

Great blog, as always. I am so glad that you have been able to have a past/a home to return to.

And isn't it nice to have 15 people show up to toast you? May this happen many times more. :-)

Kara Garbe said...

Lovely! Thank you for sharing this.