Author Archives: andreaburk

Formula for Survival

Rebecca is on the phone as she waits for the rest of the ladies to arrive. Two mothers of twins are already there.

It’s 11 am and time for Rebecca to shift gears from her other work to be ready to greet several women and babies at the milk program office in town. Today is the day that these women will come in to get more formula and powdered milk for their babies. Four of them are mothers of twins, who are at a higher risk since the mother may not be adequately nourished in the first place to allow her to produce enough milk. The rest are caregivers of orphans or babies who have lost their mothers, having been chosen from the extended family. Many have traveled from far away villages on foot, carrying the babies on their backs. Some are already staying in Dano at a part of the hospital called CREN, which helps children who are desperately ill. All the children coming in today are in different states of health. Some of them would have been dead by now if they weren’t in the program getting help.

Sometimes you discover that despite having lived somewhere for a long time, you didn’t see something happening right there in your area. This is especially easy to do when living cross-culturally, and is what happened with us concerning orphans or partial orphans here among the Dagara. (Someone is considered an orphan if they have lost even one parent.) It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that we really understood what attitudes and practices were toward children who have lost one or both parents. What we discovered is that when a mother dies in childbirth, the baby is often left in a room alone to die, or that when they do try to help the baby, they lack the education and resources needed to do so correctly, and the baby dies anyway.

Rebecca is looking through the folders for each child in preparation for their arrival. She is still getting settled into the new office.

There are so many reasons for leaving the baby alone like that, and of course we should not stereotype or assume that every person is the same or has the same reasons. There are also those who did and do take care of orphans, doing so to different degrees of compassion as well. In general, however, in this culture adults are valued above children. One way this is evident is in the funeral practices which are very important Dagara customs. A typical adult’s funeral lasts three days, whereas a child’s funeral only lasts one day. Perhaps in a world where so many children don’t make it to their 5th birthday, people have learned to cope by concentrating their energies on those who actually live longer. Not that they don’t love their children, but they are taught that they should be tough in this way. I believe this is changing in the younger generations, however.

In the foreground is a mother and her twins. I love the sweet look on the face of the grandmotherly caregiver in the background.

Since funerals are so important and there is more of an attachment to the adult who died, the baby tends to get blamed for taking the mother, who was dearly loved and needed, away from the family. A stigma developed that orphans are cursed and will bring you bad luck. They say that no one will come and buy from you in the market, for example, if you take in an orphan. This is of course self-fulfilling if this attitude is widely accepted and therefore causes people to be afraid to come buy from you in the market.


Another aspect of the situation is simply the lack of resources to take care of the baby. The rest of the family feels a financial burden already and now they have to do something special to keep this baby alive. Formula is expensive relative to their means, so many times they will try sugar water, cow’s milk, or a porridge type food called “bouilli.” This is boiled ground up millet or corn making a rough kind of baby cereal, which is really a solid that babies won’t be ready for for months. Because of this, by the time they seek outside help for the baby, if they do, it is often too late.


So once our team became aware of this problem, we began to look for ways to take away the obstacles for a family who feels overwhelmed by taking care of an orphan. The most obvious need is formula for the babies, so we have begun to get the word out, working with the local social welfare office, that people have a place to come for help. Depending on a family’s situation, they can get milk for free or a reduced price. If the child is in poor health, we take them up to CREN where they can live for a while until the mother or caregiver is fully trained in how to use and clean bottles for formula, and until the child is stable health-wise.

The outside of the CREN building.

The child and caregiver can then return to their home in the village, returning at scheduled intervals to get more milk. They are also visited by Rebecca and/or our teammates, Suzanne and Melissa, in the village to make sure they are using the milk and bottles correctly. People from the States have sent many bottles, as well as sweet gifts of knitted baby caps and handmade quilts.

The Johnsons were able to bring back a suitcase full of bottles after their recent furlough.

Mr. Yameogo from Action Sociale is a talkative, jovial person who truly cares for kids and changing things for the future.

This ministry has so much potential for expansion, and so many needs to be met. So far, because people have heard of it and because we are working with Action Sociale, the local welfare office, other situations needing help have come up already. As Rebecca was preparing for all the ladies to come, Moussa Yameogo from Action Social came over with a man whose wife had just given birth a week ago but the baby was not eating. Another situation in the past involved a young girl who had a baby who wasn’t eating well because she had an infection. In the process of helping her, we discovered that she herself was an orphan also taking care of her younger sister. Someone had taken them in, but were not really being cared for due to the attitudes discussed before. We were able to get them in a better situation. Then the other day Suzanne was called out to the village to see a baby who wasn’t eating well and discovered that the baby had a cleft palate.

Each encounter offers the opportunity to educate and inform people on all kinds of childcare issues. Since it’s not necessarily practical for everyone to come to Dano, Rebecca has envisioned a situation where there are certain ladies in each village or village cluster who have a heart for the orphans and will work together to take care of them. This way they are not completely displaced and can be near extended family and friends in the community they would have had in the first place. Attitudes and levels of education are definitely changing for the better, so it’s an exciting time!

What do you think? Have you ever experienced a cultural difference that you weren’t expecting? What did you do?


Beauty Abounds

Burkina Faso is not only filled with beautiful people, but has many treasures in nature as well. During the rainy season, the foliage is lush with trees and other plants full of green leaves. Yet, Burkina can also be beautiful in the dry season when bushes are reduced to barren sticks and trees are “wintering.” In fact, that is the best time to go visit a game park since it is a lot easier to spot the animals without as much of the dense vegetation.

A good view of a deer at the game park during dry season.

Here's a warthog peeking out from behind the bushes.

A crocodile suns himself on the mud and rocks.

A close up of a crane at the watering hole.

Some buffalo from a distance. Apparently it's rare to see them since the guide was very excited when we did.

A bunch of baboons on the road. This is taken through the front windshield since it's not a good idea to roll the windows down around these guys!

A bird at the edge of the water.

We spent a long time watching these elephants. This is how close we were to them! That's the truck window.

"Hello!" Gotta love zoom lenses!

There are other places to see fun and exotic animals in Burkina as well. The president has his own little mini-game park/zoo. There are also birds around us in Dano and crested cranes at a bed and breakfast in the capital.

The camels at the president's zoo were great, their faces so full of personality.

At the zoo, you could walk right up to the animals like this antelope, but I found myself wishing they were free.

The hippos were happy with their mud hole. Cute little baby one!

Poumba looks pretty sad though. Maybe he's just taking his sieste.

This ostrich looks so curious.

Karite Bleu, a bed and breakfast in the capital, Ouagadougou, has three beautiful crested cranes.

This picture of three silhouetted birds was taken near our house at dusk.

Here are these and more pictures of amazing animals in Burkina:

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What do you think? Beauty can be found anywhere if we just look for it! What is beautiful in your life? Have you missed something that could be beautiful? Describe the most beautiful picture you’ve ever taken. What appealed to you about the subject?

A Drop in the Bucket


Ladies leaving the well carrying water in a huge bowl.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country with several rivers, only two of which have water year-round. Finding water can be a huge problem during the dry season. Although 76% of Burkinabe now have access to an improved water supply, there is a sharp difference between urban and rural areas in water development. Urban areas have a system of pipelines, even in Dano, where a household can be on “city water.”

However, once one travels out to the remote villages, that is not an option. Instead, people have access to either wells or groundwater that collects in low-lying areas. Unfortunately, many of these wells are old and broken, or the wells are uncovered, leaving them susceptible to disease. If the well in their village is broken, women will often have to go very far on foot to carry water back to their homes by balancing a large bowl or other container on their heads. It’s a lot of lost time and effort.

Closely tied to water sources is the issue of sanitation. Especially during the dry season, it is common for the only water source for people to also be the only water source for the area’s animals. They might also wash their clothes in the same water. Then of course, there’s “bathroom use”; it’s estimated that 77% of people in rural areas just go anywhere they see fit. This can also seep into the water supply. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the link between sanitation, hygiene, and their health. A lot more instruction needs to take place on this subject.

A typical watering hole already evaporating in dry season.

Burkina has several dams such as this one which are helpful in sustaining water sources.

Things are changing, especially in the area of providing clean water to people. The government has many programs going and has made improvements in the last 20 years, but the job is huge. There is still plenty of work to be done. The most urgent and efficient way of helping those in the remote areas, is to repair existing wells and dig new ones in key places. Our teammate, Geoffrey, in conjunction with Living Water International, is heading this ministry. He has also trained two different teams of Dagara men to repair wells. In the past two years, over 50 wells have been restored to villages who had no source of clean water for a long time.

The scene of the repair. The truck is long enough to haul pipes, tools and parts for the well rehabs.

A typical rundown well. The large tube is part of the process of pumping out the stagnant water.

As soon as the water starts running clear, women will start collecting it in their bowls.

Geoffrey walking towards the well to begin installing the new pump.

When the team begins a well repair, they first have to take apart the old well, pulling out the old parts and pipes. Then, using a generator, they pump out the water that has been sitting for a long time. They keep pumping until the water is clear again. Then it’s time to measure the depth of the well and put in the new pipes. The new well is then attached and people can start pumping clean water.

This is one of the rusted pipes that was keeping this village from having potable water.

Parts of the pipes had broken; most were rusty.

They have taken off the old pump and are pumping out old water.

Starting the installation of the new pump.

They use shea butter to grease the ends of the pipes.

Lowering the pipes into the well.

During the time it takes to pump out the old water, Dagara Christians give a lesson from the Bible and do a skit of a Bible story for that village’s school children. At this well rehab, they did the parable of the sower.


People are clapping and smiling as the first person tries the new pump.

At this particular well repair seen in these pictures, the crowd was made up mostly of students and other children, but many times there are more people of all kinds from the whole village. There can be singing and celebration going on the whole time, followed by a meal they prepare for the workers as a thank you. Each one varies as much as the overall personality of the village. Whatever the specific situation, they are always extremely grateful to have a renewed source of clean water.

What do you think? Water is a basic need that we often take for granted. Where do you get yours? What are some concerns you have about water in your area? Have you ever tried to walk with a heavy, sloshing object on your head, or any object?  Women here are so graceful because they learn this ability from a young age. It’s hard! 

The well is repaired!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Learning to Read

How much do you think about your ability to read? Do you ever consciously notice how much you use this skill just to function in everyday life? What if it were difficult to understand what was going on around you because you lacked this ability? How would that affect your independence, your choices, and your overall quality of life?

As we discussed in my last post, the education system in Burkina Faso is making reforms and changing for the better. That, however, is the future; the literacy rates of Burkina reflect the facts of the past. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 71.3% of the Burkinabe people 15 years old and older are illiterate.

Church leaders who can already read come together for a seminar on how to teach others to read.

One can imagine the effects this has on the economy and Burkina’s ability to interact on an international level. Self-esteem can be low, and having goals for one’s life is not even in a person’s thoughts or worldview. Many times people will learn just enough to be able to function in the market place, but can only manage money on a small scale. It would be too easy for someone to take advantage of them when finances get so complex that they need to be written down. A lot of people still use their own special “X” or some other unique mark to sign things.

The class reading the literacy materials.

There are also major effects on the way our ministry here can be done. There are usually only 2-3 people or often only one person in a village who can read well enough to read and teach Bible stories. It has happened sometimes that the one reader has to move away in search of better job opportunities, leaving the church without a good way to access stories from the Bible.

The class toward the end of the week. They've worked hard and are tired and serious. (It's cultural to not smile for pictures, but that's changing.)

A student listening intently.

This also leads to somewhat younger people becoming the leaders instead of the elderly, normally accepted leader in this culture. Where the wisdom of age is lacking, there may be an opportunity for mistakes or abuses of power to occur. At the very least, it is difficult to have a deep Bible study if only one person has read the text. If that person missed something in the reading, there is no one to notice and get the group on the right track.

The government of Burkina has had an adult literacy program for a long time. There are also other organizations whose main goal is literacy work. Each of these has their books and their methods. So people are trying; however, there are some difficulties. One involves the weather patterns which I discussed in my first post. During planting and harvesting times, it is not possible to gather enough people to have a class. They are all out working in their fields, needing every available person to get the job done. So it is during the dry season when it’s too hot to grow anything on a large scale that these programs are in full force.

Another problem is in some of the materials themselves. Some of the books have typos and mistakes, so the teacher has to be aware and not teach the wrong thing. There is also the issue I touched on earlier in that people who have never been to school, or didn’t do well, have neither a high enough self-esteem nor high enough expectations for life itself to be motivated to go to the class all the time and do their best. People are absent a lot and therefore not consistent in their learning.

Aaron teaching in a rented house (for the week), using a borrowed chalkboard.

Although there are already programs available, there is still plenty of room for more. As a part of our team’s overall goals for helping churches grow stronger, we have begun a program of literacy classes with a goal of being able to study the Bible. Some may know how to read, but they may still not know how to teach, especially with a Christian attitude of serving and humility. This is a result of the school system here being very harsh, using a method of punishment and shame instead of encouragement. Also, as well as learning small things like how to make a class list and keep an attendance booklet, they learn an inductive method of studying the Bible together.

The first group of trained literacy teachers. (Photo by Aaron Burk.)

Aaron reading a story from the Dagara kids' Bible to literacy teachers.

In August we had the first seminar which trained a class of 24 readers to teach others in their village to read. These 24 men can now go out and start classes of 30 each in their villages. When those people can read, they can then learn how to teach by attending a seminar and then reach even more villages. When each teacher has started his class, he gets a gift of a kids’ Bible translated into Dagara, which he can use to help motivate the church to want to learn and practice.

By teaching a person to read, you can open up a whole new world of opportunities and knowledge to him or her. You give him the tools not only to understand more about God, others, and how to function in the world, but also the tools to help others.

What do you think? Have you seen firsthand the effects of illiteracy? Could you do your job if you couldn’t read? What is the illiteracy rate in your country, in your city?

(For even more on the literacy program here, go visit Aaron’s blog at  He has several posts about it.)

Kids Are The Future

Educating children is the key to a country’s future. Burkina Faso is making progress, yet still struggling in this respect. In talking with a few people about their experiences, it was very obvious that Burkina is on the cutting edge of change, but that many are impatient and unhappy with the speed of that change.

Beautiful kids in public school.

The System Structure

Burkina’s school system is based on the French system, since they are a former colony of France. Primary school has 6 different levels, grouped in pairs. When a student has finished all of them, he takes an exam to get into middle school where the levels are counted backwards, starting with the 6th level and counting down to the 3rd. After this, one can take another exam which allows a student to take other courses to become a teacher, nurse, government worker, etc, as long as they are old enough. After middle school, high school consists of the 2nd and 1st level and the last year called “terminale” where one studies for the BAC, a major test that determines whether or not you can be accepted into university. There is one university in the capital, Ouagadougou.  There really aren’t enough schools for everyone; class sizes can range from 50-80.

This is what the outside of a typical Burkinabe school looks like. Windows on both sides provide a breeze.

Why Many Aren’t in School

As of 2010, over a million primary aged children were not in school at all. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes the parents refuse to let their children go to school because they need them in the fields or they want to teach them their job instead. They are stuck, lacking understanding of what an education can do for one’s life. Because people put more emphasis on community than individualism, the stereotypes and expectations for children to be like their parents are very strong. Other times the child is afraid to go to school because they aren’t used to so many people all at once or because they have heard that the teacher at their school hits the students for wrong answers or badly done work. Our night guard has a couple of stories about being hit in school, so badly once that he lost hearing in his ear for a little while.

Younger kids in a private school.

There is also a custom here of finding a young girl around 10 years old from the village to come and watch the baby of a person who has a pretty good job, such as a government worker. It’s very common to see a girl of 10 with a baby wrapped on her back in the traditional style of carrying babies here. It’s also possible for a family to send their son to work for another family. Sometimes the parents get some kind of payment; sometimes it’s just free labor for their own extended family. Many times, as well, girls will not be treated equally in that they are not kept in school past about 10 or 12 yrs old. Their mothers will bring them home to help around the house and then they will get married in a few years. Often there are more boys in school than girls, especially in the upper levels.

The kids all have to learn French in order to continue with school. These are verb conjugations.

This little boy understood me when I asked them to act like they were studying. Most seemed to still be more comfortable with Dagara.

The most obvious cause for not attending school is that they can’t afford it. The costs, which would be negligible for many of us, are often insurmountable for a village family especially, but for many others as well once you count in the cost of books and materials or possibly a uniform. If they have more than one child, it can really add up. Many begin primary school but are unable to continue as prices go up for higher levels of education. For whatever reason, many kids don’t start school at the normal age of 6 or 7. When this is the case, the public schools no longer accept them so they must go to a private one. Prices are even higher in this case. Most likely, if a child’s parent dies, they will not be able to afford to go anymore either.

More cute kids in a public school. This class had 58 students!

Adeline has gone back to school as a young adult.

Night School

In this reality of the system, many people have to stop going to school at many different levels of education. Now, however, there is definitely a resurgence of young adults going back to school to get their basic diploma which enables them to try for a variety of good jobs. They are not allowed to go to public school because they are too old, so there are night schools and tutors. Adeline is a young lady who lost her father when she was about 14 and had to drop out of school. She has recently gone back to night school and has been able to begin again to work toward her future. She has not yet been able to afford the books, but shares with other classmates. She says that it’s been a little difficult to get back into and understand, but there is no money for a tutor. She is not alone in this situation.

The Hopeful Future

Fortunately, things are changing. The government has made the first couple of years of school free now, is making efforts to get all the children in school, including the girls, and is really concentrating on the illiteracy rate among girls. Even among the people who shared their experiences with me, there was a different point of view depending on their ages. It was inspiring to visit the children in schools right now. They are like children should be everywhere, getting their chance to learn and grow.

I had to include this one. Kids are the same everywhere, precious and unique personalities.

These are the "cafeteria ladies." Every school has women who wait around for lunchtime to sell food to the kids. They aren't smiling for the picture, but they were a lot of fun!

What do you think? “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Two out of three adults I asked said they thought about it when they were young, and when I asked a group of boys who were here to play, they all had something they wanted to be…policemen, doctor, soldier, and a boat captain (my favorite because Burkina is landlocked).

How many of you thought about what you wanted to be when you were a kid? Did you feel limited by your circumstances? Did you feel if you just worked hard enough you could do it?

A Need for Healing

A hand-pumped well in the shadow of a cell tower.

Although Burkina Faso is an underdeveloped country, the people are striving to advance in many areas. It is full of contrasts: patches of modernization right next to rural traditions. It’s a place where one can find cell phones out in the farthest villages which have no electricity. People charge them on car batteries and stand on the one hill or next to the one tree where there is a signal. It’s a place where a satellite dish can be found in a yard enclosed by a grass mat wall. It’s also a place where the medical system is struggling to provide, where one can get laparoscopic surgery in the capital for $1400, and yet people are dying in the villages for lack of $2.

A satellite dish peeking out from a temporary grass mat fence.

Many people are trying to change things, but it’s a huge task. As is true everywhere, some people are doing their best, working hard, while others just coast. However, even the people working hard are up against so many obstacles. There is a physical side to the difficulties in that there just aren’t enough resources for better facilities, equipment, or materials. There are also obstacles to overcome in the attitudes of the people, both the doctors and the patients.

Materially, it is plain to see that Burkina just doesn’t have the resources necessary to keep equipment and facilities up to date. In the capital city of Ouagadougou (Wagadoogoo), one can find almost all the usual equipment. There is a machine for MRIs and one for CAT scans, but if one of them breaks down, the patient just has to wait until it’s repaired. There is a place that specializes in heart problems as well as several sonogram machines in the city. Facilities vary in age and cleanliness. The most knowledgeable doctors are there; however, there are just some things they can’t do or have to send away to get tested. They are limited by the equipment and supplies.

The nurses' station in Dano. It used to be the only hospital in town.

As one travels out further to smaller towns, standards are lower because resources are fewer. Most of the pictures here are from the older hospital in Dano, which is really more of a nurses’ station. The new hospital has more capabilities, but still can’t do everything they can do in Ouaga.

The doctor's office where patients go when they first come in.

One of the rooms in the small surgery operating room.

Small operations are performed here.

Doctors have worked extremely hard to achieve their knowledgeable position and should be applauded for that; however, many times pride has taken over and there seems to be a superior attitude. This is definitely changing, but is still rooted in a hierarchical, respect-based society. Their pride as well as their being assigned to a region where they don’t speak the language can keep them from taking the time to explain an illness to a patient. In the U.S., there are magazine articles and television shows everywhere teaching about medical issues and illnesses: how to prevent them, the signs and symptoms, and even how to treat some things. In Burkina, most people from the villages can’t even read, and often return from the doctor without a firm idea about what is wrong with them, much less a good understanding of how to live with the illness or prevent it. Many times they are too intimidated to ask questions about their own health.

The tiled, run-down operating table.

In more developed countries, if we get sick, we tend to go see a doctor right away. We see it as a right and the natural course of things that we get medical advice and the needed medicines. When someone dies, it’s extremely rare that we don’t know the reason. In the villages of Burkina, people are much more accepting of illness and death as the norm. Some of this is due to lack of money for medicines and transportation to the doctor, but some is due to lack of knowledge, an attitude of fatalism, or an inferiority complex coming from the generational poverty. In their view, important people and those with money can go to the hospital and buy medicines, but it seems almost impossible for them to have that same privilege. They just don’t see coming into town to see the doctor as an option sometimes; therefore, they wait so long to seek help that it is often too late. The person ends up dying in the hospital, fostering the idea that one goes to the hospital to die, and therefore discouraging people from wanting to seek out the hospital. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken.

We recently had two cases of this. One woman had been sick for several days, having already been told by her local nurses’ station that she needed to go have her appendix taken out. She put it off until it had burst, but fortunately she got to the hospital in Dano in time and lived. However, another woman had been sick off and on and this time they waited too long to bring her in. The hospital didn’t even want to admit her at first, perhaps to save the family’s meager money or maybe trying to stop the misconception that the hospital is only a place to come to die. In the end, she was at least able to die comfortably and with dignity in a hospital bed.

The maternity ward at the hospital.

It is very easy to get frustrated and to question why they don’t seem to care or want to change their situation, but we have to understand that many of these attitudes are deep-seated, prevalent in many cultures across Africa, and have far-reaching implications in society as a whole. It’s also important to remember that we should not stereotype and assume everyone is the same in another culture. Despite patterns, each person and situation is unique.

There is a good article that succinctly explains the general mindset of traditional African culture, written by an atheist who believes that Africa needs God, not just aid work. He states, “Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.” He goes on to say that a personal relationship with God liberates people from these attitudes.

Kids at a medical clinic enjoying a presentation on good hygiene.

Doctors and translators work together to see over a hundred kids. There are four different areas in this school room for examining the kids.

Waiting to see a doctor.

A kid's eye view of a vision test.

Although the medical system needs a lot of changes and is a work in progress, there are things that can be done now. One thing being done is that our team has partnered with local and foreign doctors and nurses to offer clinics for school children. They are given a basic physical in which they are tested for malaria, among other things. Usually, almost all the children have malaria, many have ears so stopped up that they would have eventually gone deaf if they hadn’t been cleaned out, and some major health problems are found.

At these clinics, the kids are also able to see funny skits which teach them about the value of hygiene and mosquito nets. Although they can be a little scared of the costumes at first because they’ve never seen anything like that, the kids have a lot of fun laughing, participating in the singing, and answering questions about what they just learned.

Entertaining the kids with a song about hygiene. "Say yes, yes, yes to hygiene!" The kids are afraid of the "lion" at first, but soon join in on the fun.

Two "kids" who teach about hygiene. The one with the white patch (representing a fungus some kids can get) doesn't take care of himself and has all kinds of troubles.

Many adults are there as well, hoping to get to see a doctor for free, but this program is just for the kids. The need overflows the ability of a few to provide medical care. Again, so many people wanting medical care for free just emphasizes the poverty of this area in that antibiotics are available for a dollar and yet people feel they can’t afford it. It also highlights attitudes that need to be changed about valuing the health of all people and believing that they are worthy of loving care as much as the “important” people of this world.

What do you think?   Have you had an experience helping at medical clinics? Have you ever encountered a cultural viewpoint difference that was challenging? What do you think about the article I mentioned above, especially the illustration about whether or not to climb a mountain?

Let’s Redefine “Poor”

As I said in the About Me section, the point of my photos and blog is to call attention to people who need help in some way. The country of Burkina Faso is one of the top ten poorest countries in the world, with the rural Dagara being on the lower end of the the spectrum of poverty. Instead of falling into the temptation of shaking our heads sadly and then mostly ignoring it, I would like to challenge all of us to start to confront the general issue of poverty by looking at the specific poverty of the Dagara.

What images or ideas come to your mind when you think of a poor person? Do you think of someone in your own country who lives in a run down house and doesn’t have the same things you have? Do you think more globally, yet abstractly with the images of National Geographic and Ethiopia engrained on your mind? What are your emotional reactions and thought processes?

Cute group of kids in Dano. They are somewhat dressed up for a party.

It’s not uncommon to read or hear a comment such as “Why are we sending money off to some foreign country to help the poor? We have poor people of our own we should be helping!” We will then often hear another “side” to the coin which sounds somewhat judgmental toward the poor themselves, insinuating that they have enough but just don’t know how to budget or manage their money. Let’s remember that it’s not helpful to anyone in this difficult situation to be judgmental on either side of the issue. Although poverty is definitely relative to the country and culture in which it exists, I believe we need to also step back and redefine what poverty actually looks like.

Ladies washing clothes where a stream runs over the road.

There are all kinds of poverty in this world: physical, spiritual, mental, etc. Many times the poverty that comes to our minds and seems more prevalent in the U.S. involves more of the mental attitudes that come with physical poverty. Although there are impoverished attitudes in Burkina, the poverty that strikes someone visiting here is overwhelmingly physical. Our team recently had some visitors who were quite taken aback by the poverty here. They made the comment that seeing it in person is a completely different experience from the two-dimensional photos and articles they might see back in the safety of their own home and environment.

As a starting point of comparison, this graph of the amenities owned by people classified as poor in the U.S. says that a family of four is poor if they earn around 22,000 dollars or less per year. This is more money than the majority of the Burkinabe could ever dream of seeing. The average worker in Burkina earns only about 2 dollars a day.  According to this chart, almost all of the poor in the U.S. own a refrigerator, television, stove and oven, which most Americans would definitely consider the basics. These are followed by microwaves, air conditioning, and VCRs and DVD players. After this begins the “extras” of more than one or two televisions, cordless phones, washers and dryers, and stereos. These things are available in Burkina, but only in the towns and cities. The basis for most of these appliances, electricity, is not out to the villages yet.

A man on his way to sell bananas at the market.

In villages, as opposed to towns and cities, living conditions can be harsh. Since there is no electricity, all the amenities available in the Western world and in the cities are completely irrelevant to their lives. Instead of a washing machine, women wash their clothes in the nearest body of water, often having to do so without soap to really get them clean. Instead of flipping on a light switch, they have oil burning lamps. If they are broken or out of fuel, people will have to go without until they can save money and make it to the next weekly market. The market could be near or far, depending on what they need to buy, and most people will have to go on foot. Many times you can see an elderly woman who has just walked a long distance with her shoes on her head in order to help them last longer. In the remote villages, fewer people have bicycles and even fewer have motorcycles.

Used refrigerators for sale on the main road in our small town of Dano. Love the pig!

As far as attitudes go, in Burkina, a person can work really hard all day long and still not get anything to eat that day, or possibly only one meal. This can happen for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they are in the middle of the hunger months mentioned in the last post, and are trying to make their food last as long as possible. It’s not uncommon for a person to go an entire week without eating. There are also those who feel defeated by poverty, or just don’t think that there is a way to lift themselves out of it. However, most are just working as hard as they can.

The interior of a village home taken with the natural light coming from the doorway. Notice the roof made of wood.

A wonderful "couch" of logs in the courtyard. They sometimes sleep here as well when it's too hot to sleep inside.

The interior of a village home functions more as just a place to store things and sleep than as a place to hang out doing leisure activities. Most of their lives are spent outside, so their chairs and other places to sit are in their courtyards. When they do go to sleep at night, it’s not usually on a bed, but on a mat on the packed down, hard earth floor. Some mats are very thin, woven from plastic, while others are made out of a type of hollow reed or straw. Sometimes they will have a wooden bed frame with a straw or foam mattress, but also many times they may have nothing but flattened cardboard boxes.

Examples of the thin plastic sleeping mats, drying after being washed in the stream.

Another kind of sleeping mat made out of straw. They roll them and hang them up during the day to keep them clean. The smaller bundles attached in front are brooms.

Kids playing marbles in the courtyard of their home.

Despite all the difficulties, people are just living their lives. They have times of happiness and celebration as well as sadness and mourning. They work to make their food or earn a little money. They play soccer or children play marbles or other made up games. They accept life the way it is, yet for the most part, don’t give up.

What do you think? This really only scratches the surface of this issue. In future posts we will discuss how this affects the education and medical systems. I would love to get a dialogue going. Has this changed your perspective on poverty? Do you know any poor people near you? Have you seen good things being done to alleviate poverty? What do you think can be done to encourage those in poverty to think positively about changing their situation? I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this!

Painting the background

Daily life among the Dagara, or any people group in Burkina Faso, is full of activities geared toward survival. Life is hard: the terrain and climate are unforgiving; resources are scarce or non-existent; and the mindset of generational poverty limits what the average person even dreams he can accomplish. Yet the people are full of life, love, friendship, and joy.  In the articles to follow, I will be going into more detail about the various aspects of the culture with the goal of spreading understanding and compassion.  

In order to truly understand the people, it’s important to paint the background picture, which in this case is the terrain and climate of Burkina Faso. Although rather small (about the size of Colorado), Burkina has some variance in climate from more tropical in the south to the borders of the Sahara in the north, called the Sahel. In this semi-arid tropical environment, there are only two seasons: rainy and dry. The rainy season lasts from about May to September in Dagara-land, with the transition months of May and October being particularly humid and uncomfortably hot. During the dry season, the Harmattan winds come down from the deserts in northern Africa, bringing with them so much dust that the air is full of it and even partially blocks the sun. Because of this, temperatures can be cooler during the months of December to February, yet are gradually heating up to the hottest time of the year in April.

The dry season terrain. Notice the hazy, dusty sky.

A similar view at the end of rainy season. Notice the same big house in the background and the peanut crop in the foreground. The grasses and weeds have grown so high they conceal small buildings.

If you’ve ever been in West Texas on the hottest summer day imaginable, then you’re on your way to understanding the heat here. However, imagine that you don’t have access to any air conditioning and that you don’t have the comforting thought that fall and winter are coming. Also, most of your daily life is lived outdoors, dependent on the weather and the ground for your food.  We all know how the weather can affect us.  Yet, while we have people and technology predicting the next week for us so that we can plan our activities accordingly, the average person living in a village must exist in a somewhat flexible state of unpredictability.

This weather pattern has other effects on the daily life of the people as well. During the relatively cool and dusty dry season, people are actually wearing winter coats and hats and tend to get “winter colds” as well as other contagious diseases, such as meningitis, which are at a peak because of germs being transferred on the dust. When riding in our truck with the sun somewhat obscured, the air conditioner going, and people walking along the side of the road all bundled up, we can pretend it’s just a “hazy shade of winter.”

Another view of dry season from a rooftop on a hill.

During the hotter times, we as foreigners may think that the Burkinabe are used to the heat, but they are affected by it just as much as we are. It’s just not possible to get a lot done when the temperature is oppressively hot. Because of this, there is a tradition here of getting up early in the cooler hours of the morning to get some work done, and then taking a sieste, or rest time, in the middle of the afternoon.  This is changing somewhat and is not always observed, but most businesses still follow this pattern.  This definitely dictates a slower pace of life for the whole country.

And yet, the dry, hot season has its activities as well.  The main food harvest of corn, millet, and peanuts has already taken place around October, and planting on a large scale cannot take place yet since nothing will grow without rain. Although there may seem to be a lot of idle time, cotton is harvested in December and dry season is a great time to build so the walls will have plenty of time to harden. Because people have some extra time that is not needed for the fields, this is also a great time for evangelism and literacy classes.

Mud brick walls with mud mortar are typically covered by a thin coating of concrete or a manure and mud mixture.

The wall of a school building in Yo Ba Gawn has fallen down because of so much rain.

During rainy season everything is in bloom or green. Colors look particularly vibrant against a stormy sky.

Typically, May is when the rains begin to come. People start clearing their fields and preparing the soil.  The rain softens the soil that has been baking in the hot sun, so as soon as it rains, they drop other plans and go out to the fields to work. Plowing and planting continue throughout June as the rains come more often.  In July, as the terrain is looking very lush, people are actually nearing the end of their food supply. Granaries are emptying and there are only certain vegetables available. Prices tend to go up as food is at a premium.  The Dagara call this time period the “hunger months.”

Water is more plentiful, but can also be an enemy when it rains so much that their mud brick houses fall down. It seems that every year a few people lose their lives in the night because a wall falls on them in their sleep.  Some people even continue to live in these houses because there is no other place to go.  It varies as to how soon they can get it repaired.

With the rainy weather comes cooler temperatures, at least while it’s raining. Between rain showers it can get quite humid.  However, in July and August there are days that are completely rainy and very pleasant.

A farmer using oxen to plow.

A farmer using oxen to plow.

Working in the fields is a family affair as most is done by backbreaking personal labor using a hoe called a “daba.” It is short and requires that the user bend over to work. Some people might have plows pulled by oxen, or are able to rent them, but the majority rely on having large families.

All of this has shaped the habits and thinking of the Burkinabe.  Because they are at the mercy of the weather and have to rely on each other for survival, they have a tendency to emphasize events over time and people over tasks.

This has profound implications for the economy and other aspects of Burkina life.  Instead of having the expectation of working the set hours of 8-5, for example, the people have developed a more laid-back attitude. Although this can be a little difficult to get used to for the Western mindset which wants to have a task list of things to accomplish everyday, it is also a welcome change of pace. It is nice to be able to spend hours just sitting and chatting with a friend, developing a meaningful relationship, in part because you have given your time.

Who you know and showing respect to those in authority also become very important in a people-centered society. Living in close relationships with others is vital. Families are so closely tied as a group that if one person starts to become successful, many others will put pressure on them to lift them up socially or economically as well.  There is more emphasis on the community than on the individual, which can make it difficult to change one’s situation; however, the good side of this is that most people also have others they can rely on in times of trouble.

What do you think? It’s not often that we who are more used to the conveniences of the “first world” even think about how the weather affects our society, other than to be irritated at the “bad” weather or grateful for rain after a drought. What effects have you noticed the climate having in your area?  Does it affect your daily life or are you able to keep a fairly regular schedule anyway?