Another taste of slum life in Burkina Faso
It’s all very well luxuriating in 5 star hotels but you aint gonna learn much about a country or its people sipping fine wines and chomping on Lobster flown in from some distant sea. Sometimes you’ve just got to get down and dirty. So, I was only too happy to go back to the muddy shacks of Jongo, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the shabby capital of Burkina Faso, to see my friend Mamadou. I wrote before about some of my experiences here in How the other half live, if you want to remind yourself of the realities of life for many at the poorer end of the spectrum.
Jongo remained much as I had left it: hundreds of grubby shacks, made of mud and breeze blocks, with corrugated iron roofs, spread over a flat expanse of dirt, to one side of a main road, a few km from downtown Ouagadougou. If anything, the rubbish had accumulated since my last visit a couple of years ago but it tends to get trodden in during the rainy season, becoming a geological layer once the ground hardens in the dry season. The rain is also the main form of removal for the stuff that doesn’t get trodden in, albeit as part of rather gradual process where wind-blown plastic eventually settles in one of the dry stream beds that briefly flow with water every time there’s a storm. The storm water pushes the rubbish a bit further along each time until someone else gets to look at it rather than you and you will have a nice load of new rubbish that’s replaced it. The storm water creates enough temporary ponds and streams for at least a few hours, so that half the population can’t leave for the main road, unless they are prepared to do some serious wading through the muddy, brown water that’s picked up all kinds of nameless sins as well as the cow and goat shit that would otherwise sit around and bake in the sun.
What it lacks in running water, electricity and sewage systems it makes up for in smiles, laughs and amiable banter, well at least as far as such human traits can compensate for serious health hazards. But lets not romanticise poverty here, there’s nothing romantic about having to crap into a steaming pit of browness in 35C+ temperatures, particularly when you’ve just come down with malaria, as I and one of Mamadou’s sister in-laws did. Even on my modest budget I could cope with the cost of a stay in the nearest clinic and help the family out with the cost of medicine but for most people the only option is traditional medicine, which may not always do as much as you’d like. The clinic was by no means the worst I’ve seen in Africa, the cockroaches were only small and having the occasional chicken or guinea fowl wander through the corridors at least livened up the proceedings. Despite an abundant supply of rubber gloves for the medical staff, indicating some familiarity with the concept of hygiene, this did not extend to having soap in the toilets or even reliable flushing mechanisms. Nevertheless one of the nurses did take a liking to me and her overt efforts at flirting were undiminished by having to hold a plastic bag while I vomited into it, producing vile, retching, gurgling noises.
The front line of the welcoming committee had to be the children, where even a modest effort at interaction will reward you with endless entertainment. A few were initially terrified of the weird white man, after all there aren’t exactly a lot of us around, although a mad Frenchman makes the occasional appearance which often consists of getting drunk and hurling insults at people so he’s not particularly popular. It usually only took a day or so to win over the scared kids. Almost invariably you are greeted with a chant of nah sah lah, meaning white man in the local moray language, to which I responded with ni sav la ghah, meaning black kid. If you are so inclined you can keep up this chanting at each other for ages, such is the level of entertainment it provokes with both them and the parents. Among my limited array of talents is the ability to make farting noises with my hands and whistling noises by blowing on a blade of grass between my thumbs, which soon promoted me to rock star status, which the kids attempted, largely unsuccessfully to copy. Hence my arrival always prompted a flurry of hand movements and offerings of blades of grass demanding a repeat performance, for which they never tired. I am beginning to suspect that for a life of travel my time in higher education served very little purpose and would have been far more gainfully employed in clown school and juggling classes.
While we might be inundated with yet more tiresome selfies to satisfy all kinds of egos, from the bloated to the fragile, the smart phone has only made limited inroads here, even with the ever descending costs of cheap, Chinese electronics. So, a gift of a good, old-fashioned photo to a child will generate near hysterical delight as well as genuine gratitude from the parent. Us foreigners will often be asked by kids to take a picture once they know you have a camera but that bit of extra effort of getting some copies printed off can produce a joy that can never be measured in financial terms, whilst avoiding the problems of simply dishing out money to children. At least until smart phones get so cheap that kids in slums are posting seflies on Facebook.
Not once did a child ask for money, be rude or act disrespectfully to me. Whole troops of kids would dutifully come to shake my hand on each new encounter, before requesting more silly noises, naturally. Poverty in Burkina Faso may have many negative consequences but inducing poor parenting skills is certainly not one of them, I suspect there is much they could teach us. Although I saw kids being told off by their mums I never witnessed any threat or use of physical violence, which certainly occurs in some African cultures as well as our own. It’s very much the mothers’ job to bring up kids and I don’t know what the mothers of Jongo are doing right but whatever it is they deserve our admiration.
There’s a continuous but rarely hectic bustle of activity much of the day, simply because, as elsewhere in Africa, most families deal with limited funds by contributing to the local microecomomies by selling whatever they can, even if it’s as microscopic as a few handfuls of peanuts. It’s also a social opportunity to sit outside the house and engage with anyone who passes by, hence the Western phenomenon of not really knowing your neighbours very well would seem utterly bizarre here. Poverty at least provides time to sit and talk, so any kind of news is easily spread, a walk through the town could easily involve a number of stops to say hello and pass on snippets of gossip and news. Saying hello is of course an obligation when everyone knows virtually everyone else. This level of social interaction is probably what contributes to the relatively low levels of crime: places are rarely left unattended for long and a stranger acting suspiciously stands out like Donald Trump at a Black Lives Matter rally. Anyone suspected of robbing from their own community would have their reputation ruined before tea time, via the gossip grapevine, more effectively than any Twitter campaign.
It would be unwise to paint too rosy a picture of life in places like Jongo, I am sure each time I return I will pick up more clues as to negative aspects of life, beyond the simple, physical trials of being poor. However I hope it can demonstrate that we need to be wary of simplistic assumptions and recognise how the importance of values of family and community bring much good to lives in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t so long ago that these values were more common currency in our own cultures and maybe Jongo can help us reflect what our rush into modernity has cost us to bring its benefits.