Thursday, February 18, 2010

What do you do in Waga Doo Goo?

Not much!   But the Burkinas are very friendly and French culture from the colonial past is still here to lend a civilized touch.

Ouagadougou, or simply Ouaga (or Waga) as the locals call it -- is the dust-swept capital of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta. It's well-known in US diplomatic circles because it is always held out as the post you will be sent to if you screw up.  Burkina Faso is much like its neighboring Sahelian countries in that they are all extremely poor, Burkina is currently ranked sixth from the bottom of the UNDP Human Development Index (  One doesn't feel the poverty so much in Ouaga but I'm told that the further one travels away from the capital, the more arid the land becomes and the poorer the people are. I got a bit of a feel for it when I looked down from my plane during its descent into Ouaga.  There was almost nothing out there but mud huts with barren trails connecting them.

The foreign population of Ouagadougou is probably less than 2 percent of the total with most of them being diplomats, UN personnel or employees of NGOs and other aid organizations. There are a large number of organizations providing humanitarian and technical assistance to the Burkina population in education, agriculture, health and micro-business.  For expatriots in Ouagadougou, life can actually be quite comfortable.  Most expats live in walled housing enclaves with interior gardens and with 24-hour generators to keep their electricity and air-conditioning running. Their kids go to private international schools, they have household staffs and they swim or play tennis regularly at their club. While Burkina is technically no longer a French colony, it still has a heavy French presence just as all former French colonies do. And wherever the French are you can be sure their lifestyle is also there. One can get freshly baked baguettes and croissants at bakeries throughout Ouaga and there are several good French restaurants in town. My first real eye opener as to how well the French live in Africa was in the early 1980s in Bangui, Central African Republic, an extremely isolated and landlocked country: I went with a colleague to lunch in a small French cafe and had fresh oysters on the half-shell that had arrived that very morning via air France. 

If you have seen today's news you will have heard about the coup attempt in neighboring Niger. I haven't followed up to hear whether it succeeded but coups are extremely common all over Africa and especially in the Sahel. We experienced a coup attempt when we lived in Cameroon.  It was ultimately put down by the government, but we spent several anxious days at home listening to and watching some of the fighting from a distance. I can sense that the entire Sahel is on edge about the situation in Niger because it disrupts flight schedules and other aspects of life in the region.

After two weeks in Francophone Africa my limited French is starting to return. In the 1980s I had a Foreign Service Institute rating of 2 on a scale of 0+ to 5. However having rarely used my French since then and having learned a little (very little) Spanish in the meantime, I had a hard time remembering key French words when I first arrived, with Spanish  always popping into my head before I could think of a French equivalent. And of course now that I'm starting to remember more French it's almost time for me to return home where I can forget it again.

My next and last stop on this trip is Abidjan, Ivory Coast.  I'll be back in the US next week and am looking forward to it.

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