Nee-beh-ogo. Nee-beh-keh-meh. Lafee-ballah. Zakaramba. Lafee-bay-meh. Zakaramba! This convoluted exchange of greetings in Burkina Faso means that a short morning walk down a street can take far longer than expected. Every Burkinabe (local) is flattered to be greeted by a nasara (white man), making us feel like dignitaries, and with the complicated greeting changing every few hours, it can be taxing to get your head around.
Burkina Faso in West Africa is the friendliest country I can ever imagine visiting, and although it sounds like a cliché, this time it’s true. Even the country’s name translates as ‘the land of the honest men’. For such a poor and seemingly insignificant country, it punches above its weight in the richness of its culture. Sixty-eight different languages are spoken; Christianity, Islam, and Animism coexist harmoniously; music and fashion are integral to Burkinabe life, and the heterogeneity of its inter-tribal communities means that the Burkinabes are also disarmingly beautiful.
The reason I found myself living for three months with four other Brits in the dusty capital, Ouagadougou, was the new government-funded initiative ‘International Citizen Service’, which is giving 18-22 year olds the opportunity to get involved in development work. Inspired by my Geography course, this opportunity was too good to miss. The scheme is means-tested which makes opportunities available to all young people, no matter what their background. The charity I chose was International Service, which also works in Mali, Bolivia and Palestine, building on the skills and capacities of organisations that represent the most disadvantaged people.
Land-locked in the semi-arid, Sub-Saharan region in West Africa, Burkina Faso battles against the odds. It has a high population density, few natural resources, a fragile soil (upon which 90% of Burkinabes are directly dependent), and ranks seventh lowest in the Human Development Index. We worked with a local organisation called Kabeela, who help to improve women’s livelihoods through schemes such as literacy classes, educating rural villagers on sexual health, family planning, and general health amongst others. I soon realised how vital this work was, especially regarding the population; women currently have six children on average, and the population is set to double by 2030. Parents would have fewer children if there were a lower risk of infant mortality, and if the villagers were healthier, they would spend less of their income on medicine, and agricultural productivity would increase. Whilst we were in Burkina, we experienced the depressing lack of rainfall, which international news agencies were flagging as a precursor to a potential West African food crisis next year. With increasing desertification and looming food instability, we saw how crucial Kabeela’s grassroots education was.
Our crowning achievement was filming and editing the local theatre troupe’s humorous play on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, which will be shown to similar remote villages from a TV atop the organisation’s car – a real entertainment highlight in this area. We also created a website for Kabeela (assKabeela.com), spent time fundraising, made toys, and conducted agricultural research. It was an interesting challenge to make pictorial family planning and HIV/AIDS brochures for villagers with low literacy skills.
Development work is not for the faint-hearted: one needs patience, and oodles of it. Peace Corps volunteers call it W.A.I.T. – (West African International Time) – and it should not be underestimated. The simplest task can take weeks — arranging a meeting, borrowing a spade and so forth. It can be frustrating, but we mostly needed to acclimatise to the time-difference and smile more. So many difficulties were out of our control, such as government spending on healthcare, the market price of anti-retro-viral drugs, western expenditure on development, rainfall; the list is endless. We had to come to terms with the fact that our best efforts were a drop in the ocean of global development, but if this meant assisting one organisation and indirectly improving a handful of lives, then it has been worth it.