Let me take you away from the headline grabbing suffering in Africa and go down to the simple realities of everyday existence, to my friend Mamadou’s home: a one room mud brick shack with a corrugated iron roof, in a small town a few km outside the capital of Burkina Faso – Ouagadougou. Apart from a lucky few who could afford concrete blocks, all houses are built like this, so every rainy season brings some new collapses. Here, where I have been staying for a week is typical for those at the dollar a day measure of poverty. With $1000 getting you a plot of land and a simple home built and with property values peaking at about three times that, you can be sure that the celebrity makeover programmes wont be turning up to do a piece very soon. There are three water taps for the whole town and a number of wells dotted around but even the locals wouldn’t think of drinking what comes out of them. Naturally there are always queues of women with trolleys of water containers waiting at the taps, so there is no shortage of opportunities to talk about men and other more important subjects.
The “shopping centre” is a mass of little, mostly wooden stalls and businesses, the biggest of which is half the size of the smallest corner shop back at home, but somewhere that anyone can turn up with homemade items or food and drink to earn a little bit of cash to buy essentials. Like every other street it has a good carpeting of plastic bags and discarded water sachets.
Being a musician and all the vagaries of income that entails, Mamadou can’t afford to have a toilet dug, but there is plenty of waste ground to piss on and some of his family live only a 5 minute walk away when more serious business is required. The toilet and the shower are in fact one and the same, the only difference being a piece of wood to stand on to cover the hole when washing. This chest high enclosure gives you a nice view of the yard and everyone in it whilst you are having a wash. Of course when a woman has gone to the effort of lugging all the water back from the well you don’t go throwing this greyish liquid around like it was going out of fashion, so one bucket will clean at least two of us.
Despite being only a few weeks after the rainy season the all-pervading dust is already coating everything and the sound of coughing, snotty nosed kids provides a regular soundtrack to the day. Telling children not to play in the dirt would mean forcing them to stand still all day which would require a discipline worthy of Al Qaeda, thus rather impractical. As it is children do seem to have developed a magnetic attraction for the local dirt and it must provide extra calorific intake.
By now I can almost hear the clatter of keyboards googling “cheap flights to Burkina Faso”, so persuasive has the image of luxury I have portrayed been. Luxury indeed is what it was, for we then went to stay in his home village, which lay at the end of a 2 hour moped journey down an ever narrower and rougher dirt track.
Toilets? Pah! If the field is good enough for the animals it will do for us humans, besides, a bit of extra fertilizer can only be a good thing for next year’s crop. The shower enclosure then had the benefit of only serving one purpose but without the concrete base the toilet provided you had to choose the slightly less muddy bit of ground to stand on in an old pair of flip-flops.
The chickens and goats hadn’t quite got the message about crapping in the field so we would eat our evening meal under torch-light which added a warm glow to the chocolate chip cookie effect of the animal poo dotted yard at our feet, the insect life and occasional cockroach appearance complimenting this delicate tableau. Even with the best will in the world, these washing and eating conditions would lead to, as the professionals would say, “an enhancement of the fecal oral-route”, or eating shit as the rest of us would say. Particularly as we ate with our hands and although rigorous washing preceded each meal, soap was not deemed necessary. The chickens were always most grateful for my hand eating method, because after what I had managed to get near my mouth, smear all over my face, or throw over my clothes, there would be plenty left on the ground for them to peck at.
Meals were generally mostly rice or toh (a tasteless maize flour splodge) with a minimal quantity of sauce, but on leaner days a meal may just be rice with a scattering of flavourings or beans with oil and salt. After five meals of rice in a row I did buy everyone some oranges to introduce the novelty of vitamins. A dollar a day does go further here than back at home, it got me a carrier bag of vegetables to contribute to an evening meal for instance but there are always plenty of non wage earning mouths to feed.
Both families were living in financial limbo: an early finish to the rainy season had left a paltry cotton crop for the village family, meaning they may not even earn enough to pay back the credit required to plant the crop; the husband of the other family had left for Ghana in search of work after having been conned out of money, forcing his business to collapse. Not once did either family ask me for money and my offers of buying whatever was needed at the market required much prompting to get a response. I was respected as a member of the family and their generosity of spirit and laughter made the week a joy to be a part of. As is so often in this world the people with the least to give will give the most and not hesitate for an instant to share what little they have with another.