A radiant young woman roars on her motorbike into a grimy courtyard under the reproachful eyes of a tethered ram. Another, studying for a French degree, stands for a photo with dignity outside the two-room hovel where she sleeps on the concrete floor with her mother. A life-size model of Santa Claus is playing the saxophone in the airport terminal, And the wigs, the wigs! Why spend hours getting your hair braided when you can put on a wig?
These are some of my indelible memories from my just-ended trip to Burkina Faso, my first to West Africa. I was there with Fred Eckhard, Kofi Annan’s former spokesman who founded the Burkina Women’s Education Fund which pays for its grantees’ university studies.
“Bonne arrivée”, the Burkinabè say when welcoming travellers. The people of Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, are cheerful and enterprising, as evidenced by the stalls that line the main roads out of the cities, crowded with motorbikes and cycles. The young women we met, all in their 20s, are inspiring in their determination to overcome the grinding poverty in which they’ve been raised. All of them have multiple siblings, many of whom live at home. Ursula is applying for a Fulbright scholarship with her degree in translation and interpretation. Clarissa, who is completing a nursing diploma, came to an open house event with us in Koudougou, the country’s third largest city, and brought along her excellent test results. Haoua, the girl on the motorbike, has a Master’s in Project Development but is working as an accountant while trying to get back into her specialist subject.
As you might expect, the sanitary conditions are dire. As soon as you leave a main road you are bumping up and down along dirt tracks of red earth, scattering chickens as you go. Yellow fever jabs are obligatory and anti-malaria pills recommended. I was also aware that Burkina Faso lies in the meningitis belt. While we were waiting for Haoua and her half-sister, another woman brought over a green plastic jug filled with water for us to drink. Foreigners are advised to only drink bottled water. I had a moment of panic – we’d already shaken hands with everyone and even kissed some of them, to cries of “bonne arrivée”. Now what would it be, bilharzia, meningitis or river blindness? Fred whispered to me that as guests we should take a sip. It’s meant to cleanse the palate of lies, apparently. I put my lips to the rim then handed it back. So far, so good.
Haoua’s father is a Muslim with four wives who was elected village chief a couple of years ago. She’s now a fervent Catholic, but when she converted to Christianity, nobody batted an eyelid. In Burkina Faso – which means land of the honest, or upright, men – about half the population are Muslim and the other half Catholic, and the two communities live in harmony. Indeed inter-faith couples can end up having four different marriage ceremonies – in church, at the mosque, at the town hall as well as a traditional wedding.
But the country’s religious tolerance has been tested by the growth of the jihadist threat. Terrorists have struck Ouagadougou three times in the past three years. The northern and eastern border areas are under curfew and 800 schools have closed. I heard that girls in the “red zone” are being forced to wear headscarves. Just before I arrived, a young Canadian travelling with an Italian went missing on the road from Bobo Dialassou, one of the country’s main tourist attractions, to Ouagadougou. A European aid worker told us over lunch that “tourism in Burkina is dead” as a result of the attacks. He and others pointed out that the jihadists are mainly coming from outside the country and the Burkinabè resilience may help overcome. But people are scared. Several of our charity’s grantees expressed concern for relatives living in the red zone which is now under a state of emergency.
Rita, the medical student, knows that she’ll be sent to a rural area to work after she qualifies. I asked her what she would do if she was sent to the red zone? “I won’t go,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”