Thursday, October 04, 2007

Life in Burkina Faso

Downtown Ouagadougou
What does it mean to be poor?

When first I saw the house of my in-laws, I was struck by its austerity, by what I deemed to be its lack of material comforts. It is a very small 3 bedroom structure, with a living area that includes a color television and a stereo system, and a bathroom with toilet and shower. The kitchen is outside, in a lean-to area attached to the house and is equipped with a small refrigerator, many pots, and a sink. There is no range. There is no dishwasher. There is no washer, no dryer. They use propane cans to cook, placing pots over the open flame. There is a small dirt-and-gravel courtyard enclosed by a six foot wall. Clothes lines are strung across the courtyard and laden with drying laundry. The covered patio in front of the house is where Mama and Papa Diop seem to spend their leisure time.

La cour de la maison Diop
The Diop family is not poor. At least, not by African standards. They own their home and it is fully complemented with electric power and plumbing. They own another small home in Senegal, their nation of birth, that has similar conveniences. Mama Diop runs a restaurant from her kitchen. Each day, she and her three servants prepare Senegalese food, which they serve in big bowls to patrons who sit on low benches. One bowl serves two to three people and usually contains rice or couscous covered with any one of a variety of sauces that might include chicken, beef, lamb, or fish. People come through the gate of their courtyard and sit at the low table to await their meals each day.

Papa Diop is now retired. He spent his career making jewelry from gold and silver and semi-precious stones: bracelets and necklaces and rings. He left Senegal with his young bride and 2 children in the '60s. They lived for a while in Ivory Coast, where they had another 4 children, before settling in Burkina Faso in the '70s, where they had there last two children. Together they have had 9 children, seven girls, of which Maty is the youngest, and two boys. There are 16 grandchildren.

All of the children except Mor, the youngest, a man of 24 years, are married and living well away from home. Better, in fact, than their parents. They are all very close and display immense respect and love for one another. They are devout Muslims and maintain a dignity that I hold in awe.

The Diop family enjoying the patio
Life in Ouagadougou seems hard, viewed through my American eyes. The heat and dust are oppressive. There is a lack of so many of the creature comforts to which I have become accustomed. The Diop family is not immune to hardship. Papa and Mama, as they grow older, are both experiencing health issues. But life goes on for them and they are content.

Recently, as we were driving down the road in Ouaga, I asked Maty if she liked life in America. She said she did, but that life in Burkina Faso was easier. This surprised me. She explained that people in Burkina rely on each other more, that there is more of a sense of communal responsibility, more of an obligation toward the well-being of one another. In America, you have to work hard all the time, she said.

That had me scratching my chin, and wondering. I haven't thought that life was all that hard in America. Nonetheless, her words hinted at something that is just beyond my Western sensibilities. I've got another two weeks here in Africa. There is some kind of truth here in one of the poorest countries in the world that I'm trying to understand. I'll keep you posted...

1 comment:

Shus li che dut nah (Spring Thunder) said...

Thank you for this wonderful sharing, Dade!

Maty's comments confirm again my opinion of life in the U.S.