I love Burkina Faso. It broke my heart to see the terror attack there. I spent some formative time in Burkina Faso in my late 20’s. It was an epic adventure to me, every day was radically different from the one before, and impossible to plan. I realized how much I had to learn, how adventure is all around me, how much of what I view as success is really not so. There’s an old line that we learn most from the places we go, the books we read and the people we meet. Hear, hear.
Life is much rawer there. That rawness makes for a lot of pain, but a lot of heroism as well. I admired many of the people I came across, who had to make impossible choices that I will never have to encounter.
At the time, one UN agency ranked Burkina as the third poorest country in the world. Most people I met would eat rice once or twice a year, on holidays. Nonetheless, many people I visited happily killed a goat for our supper to show their hospitality.
We would often ask village patriarchs how many children they had. This was a confusing question that they had not been asked. They would take several minutes to count them up. Children died frequently, and so they weren’t given names until over a week of life. When a child died, you would hear a ritual wailing all night by the mother. If it wasn’t ritualized, then the spontaneous grief would be too much for the mother to endure, over and over during life.
At the time, the country had one overpass within its borders (the things we have at each interstate exit). It had the highest per capita use of mopeds. I sat on the back of a live, “holy” crocodile there. I had an elephant charge at me. I saw an exorcism. I was a guest at a mass Eid al-Adha outdoor service (one of Islam’s two main holidays). Most of the Muslims there think it absurd that Christians and Muslims don’t get along everywhere.
Burkina Faso had a burgeoning cotton industry. I saw black women in colorful clothes and head rags stooped over, picking cotton, and that hit me, as a student of Southern history. A back of the napkin calculation showed that people were willing to work for $0.03 per hour in the cotton fields.. Even with the low wage, Burkinabe cotton can’t compete with US cotton because of subsidies and dumping. I know there are arguments for and against that, but it still seems wrong.
I was the first lawyer of any nationality that most of the people I met in the bush had ever seen. I often had to defend myself against stereotypes of greedy lawyers. I went to the appeals court in the capital, met a few lawyers and watched the proceedings. The rule of law is not too meaningful there. Almost anyone, when coming into a little money, spent it quickly. Saving for the future was too risky. Someone would just come and take it, in one fashion or another. As an example, there was a coup there a couple of years ago. The Big Man that had ruled for many, many years sought to change the constitution so he could keep ruling (why he was worried about the constitution, I don’t know). When a contingent went into his Qaddafi-financed seat of power to confront him over this, he simply fled. Thus, the country had no head of state. One of the contingent declared himself caretaker of the government and was the new ruler.
I remember sitting at a roadside “restaurant” where a lady would fry a chicken for you. Me and my compatriots were talking about the future and how hard it was to discern the proper path, because of all the choices. Meanwhile about a dozen little boys were circling around us, waiting for us to finish the chicken. No matter how clean we picked it, they would make another meal out of it, eating the sinew and many of the bones. Those little boys had two options for the future: become a shepherd, or go to the city and sell phone cards. I would often ask little boys what they wanted to do when they grew up, and they always said “come to America!” I thank God I’m already here and pray the Burkinabe will know peace.