Week One in Ouaga

At a friend’s dinner party in Islington the other week, I was talking to the actor, Michael Pennington, starring shortly at a screen near you as the veteran Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, alongside Meryl Streep in the film about Margaret Thatcher. Michael, whom I first met in Moscow a few years ago, was telling me about a book he was reading, which included the tale of Mungo Park, the late eighteenth century Scottish surgeon and explorer, who travelled up the Gambia to trace the Niger River, which was then uncharted by Europeans. I thought it would be a good book to take on my trip to Burkina Faso, in West Africa. Park’s ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa performed under Direction and Patronage of the African Association in the Years 1795, 1796 and 1797’ is a compelling, well-written publishing success that prefigured classic travelogues such as Toqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ (1835) and Custine’s ‘Letters from Russia’ (1839). Park did not pass through what is now Burkina Faso, but his journey took him through several of the country’s neighbours, which are clockwise: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

The grey lizard on my balcony wall is keeping me company. He looks like an old man, cocking his yellow head from side to side and staring at me in laconic inquisitiveness.

Reading Mungo Park two centuries later in a place not far from where he travelled, it is striking to note the persistence of stereotypes about the peoples he met: Black Africans, Arabs, Christians and Muslims and the contrast with the physical challenges of his courageous voyage into the unknown in comparison to my early 21st century woes of intermittent electricity and internet provision and having to spend three hours earlier this week at Airtel’s head office in downtown Ouagadougou (yes, three whole hours, can you believe?!!) to get a Blackberry configured correctly so that my colleague can receive dedicated email… (Despite the air-conditioning and the comfy sofa, it was hell!). Mungo Park’s trials and tribulations were somewhat greater, not least because he suffered imprisonment at the hands of a despotic Moorish leader called Ali. He did not, however, lose his sense of humour while in captivity, as witnessed by the following passage:

The curiosity of the Moorish ladies had been very troublesome to me ever since my arrival at Benown; and on the evening of the 25th [March 1796](whether from the instigation of others, or impelled by their own ungovernable curiosity, or merely out of frolic, I cannot affirm), a party of them came into my hut, and gave me plainly to understand that the object of their visit was to ascertain, by actual inspection, whether the rite of circumcision extended to the Nazarenes (Christians) as well as to the followers of Mahomet. The reader will easily judge of my surprise at this unexpected declaration, and in order to avoid the proposed scrutiny I thought it best to treat the business jocularly. I observed to them that it was not customary in my country to give ocular demonstration in such cases before so many beautiful women; but that if all of them would retire except the young lady to whom I pointed (selecting the youngest and handsomest) I would satisfy her curiosity. The ladies enjoyed the jest, and went away laughing heartily; and the young damsel herself, to whom I had given the preference (though she did not avail herself of the privilege of inspection) seemed no way displeased at the compliment, for she soon afterwards sent me some meal and milk for my supper.

I arrived in Ouagadougou last Monday 4 April on an Air France flight from Paris. The airport has not changed much since August 1984, when I was here last time around on a cheap charter from Lyons, arriving shortly after the country’s new president, Captain Thomas Sankara, had changed the country’s name from Upper Volta, after the river, to Burkina Faso, which means the Land of Men of Integrity. My first niece Sophie had just been born and my grandfather had just died. I was travelling with two Togolese friends on my way to Lomé (the capital of Togo) from where we would continue to Cotonou (economic capital of Benin) to another friend’s wedding.

Waiting for me at the airport this time were Amy, an American colleague, who I’ve come to help set up our office here (www.developmentmedia.net) and Sylvie, our Burkinabe consultant, who is expecting her first child any day soon. The cycle of a generation: birth, life and death, child, parent and grand-parent and birth again.

Since I last came to Burkina the population has doubled from about 7 to 15 million, yet the country still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. That’s what we’re here for; to use targeted mass media (particularly radio) campaigns to convey culturally-appropriate, relevant health information to young mothers and their families and friends which can effectively help them to keep more children alive and healthy for longer. And we aim to prove, in association with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, that we can do this is in a scientific manner that can be reproduced around the world.

Burkina Faso is a dry, land-locked country where the living is hard. Its main resource is its people who bear the hardships and challenges with fortitude and perseverance. Political and social stability in recent weeks have been somewhat troubled by military misbehaviour and civilian unrest, which may reflect the underlying thirst for freedom and democracy, that the people here can see is perhaps being quenched in North Africa, just over the Sahara. To the south the tragedy of the Ivory Coast feels close to hand, as Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised President-elect, like millions of Ivoirians, has Burkinabe ancestry and this is a major factor in the conflict.

But Burkina Faso also feels pretty much like many other places where the resentment of the masses – and increasingly the educated middle classes – is building up against an oligarchy of the planetary super-rich who have appropriated a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth to the detriment of the global poor. Check out David Runciman’s article Offshore in the latest issue of the London Review Review of Books. He writes of the American economy:

The real beneficiaries of the explosion in income for top earners since the 1970s has been not the top 1 per cent but the top 0.1 per cent of the general population. Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves.

The figures might be different from country to country, but from the richest to the poorest country (pretty much where I am sitting today), it feels like we live in one world, in which the super-rich are getting richer, the middle classes are increasingly squeezed and the poor are getting poorer. Is it time to reverse the trend?

Here endeth the Lesson of Swithun after his first week in Ouagadougou this Sunday 10 April 2011.