Dear Blog Readers –
Last week I spent bouncing around Burkina Faso, most of the time in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with seven people, a ram, several chickens and huge bags of peanuts. We shot over potholes, barely missing pigs wallowing in the mud, spent hours on vertebrae-crushing rural dirt roads with orange-colored dust caking itself on our hair, clothing and skin while sweat streamed down our backs. And it was a blast.
Burkina Faso is the 3rd poorest country in the world according to UN. Of the total population of just over 20 million people, 45-percent live in poverty on less than $1.25/day (1 euro/day).
Perhaps that is why a dear Italian colleague, Angela Rosati, and the phenomenal American, Bettie Petith, decided to start their own non-profit organization to help the people of Burkina. In a country where 65-percent of the population is under 25 and only one-third of the population is literate, these two women decided they could make a difference by paying for girls and boys in rural villages to go to school. That was just the beginning.
Burkina Faso means “Land of the Incorruptible” but unfortunately in 2005 Bettie returned from doing some volunteer work there complaining of corruption and officials pocketing funds. So, she and Angela started up their own organization. Since then they have spent over 200,000 euros (230,000 dollars) in projects in villages across Burkina.
Interestingly, Italy does not have an embassy in Burkina Faso and the Foreign Ministry discourages Italians from visiting. It is too dangerous. The website warns of terrorists, bandits and terrible diseases. Yet the Italian flag is proudly waving in some of Burkina’s remote villages thanks to 83-year-old Bettie.
Bettie, almost single-handedly, has overseen the building of wells and mills, sending hundreds of children to school, providing footballs for boys’ and girls’ teams, coming to the rescue of women accused of being witches, helping teenage mothers survive in a country where birth control is often unheard of, and setting up community centers, libraries and women’s groups to make textiles and soaps.
Bettie is not doing this from a distance, she is there, in Burkina Faso, making sure every cent from Fitil is delivered to those who need it. For two months every year Bettie personally goes from village to village to check on the wells, mills, and soccer balls and give her students their school uniforms, notebooks and ballpoint pens. While there, she spends hours talking to men, women and children in the villages about their lives and needs. She cheerfully stands up to try out a few dance moves with the village dancers and enthusiastically accepts drinking the local millet beer, Dolo, out of a shared gourd.
The gratitude of the villagers is palpable and after long ceremonies, they offer her brightly colored cloths, bags of peanuts, chickens and even horned rams. Bettie, often grinning ear to ear, happily tucks the chicken under her arm, takes the ram by the rope and sticks them in the Land Cruiser.
I am a bit less of a cool cucumber than Bettie, finding myself a tad intimidated by the latrine surrounded by mud walls with villagers passing by as they went back and forth from the well or having a ram bleating away at the back of my neck in the car.
What struck me most about Burkina Faso was the role of women in society. One arrives in Ouagadougou to find a flat, sprawling city with tarmac and dirt roads covered with dust. Little kiosks along the roads sell everything from tractor tires to shoes, clothes, hair products, and food. On the dirt side roads there are cows, goats and pigs wandering about and trash discarded at random.
The two million people living in Ouagadougou seem to get around mostly on motorcycles and on my first day I was astonished to see so many elegantly dressed women in traditional long clothing on motorcycles with one or two children clinging to their backs. Never a helmet in sight.
While I am on the topic of mothers and children, the first morning I wandered across the street from our simple but charming hotel called the Pavillon Vert and into the local market. I met an elegantly dressed woman in a long green outfit with matching head scarf loading up her moped with piles of buckets and a plastic baby bath. She proudly told me she was a single mom and mother of six. I told her I was the proud mother of three. “Only three!” she exclaimed, “I am sorry.” It turns out the average age for women to begin having children in Burkina is 19, and on average they have six children.
Interestingly, I hardly ever saw a woman in Burkina without a baby tied to her back or a child clinging to her legs and I don’t think I ever saw a man holding a baby.
During my visit, I had a chance to meet with the eight single moms that FITIL sponsors in Ouagadougou. They are all women who had babies when they were 18, 19, or early 20s and the fathers chose not to provide any support. Some of them were even rejected by their families. Several of them told me that got by selling bananas on the street. On slow days they could make 250 CFA (38 euro cents0 and on a good day up to 1000 CFA (1.52 euros cents).
Twenty-four-year-old Latifatou Ouedraogo told me her story while her son, five-year-old Abdoul Wahabo Zongo wiggled on her lap. She got pregnant as a teen. The man she was living with first said he would recognize the child but as the pregnancy went on, he decided he wanted to take up with another woman and stopped providing her with food. She had to leave his home. So, like the other women, she began selling bananas on the street.
Twenty-seven-year-old Marietou Savadogo told me that when she got pregnant the father of her daughter had a job in a bakery but he did not have enough money to support her and his child, so he gave her nothing and she also left to sell fruit on the street. Fatimata seemed to take it for granted that although she did not have a job and the father did, it was still her duty to find a way to support their child. And she did. Now, thanks to support she is getting from FITIL, her 10-year-old daughter is thriving and doing well in school.
Kadiatou Compaoré, who is now 23, also managed to get herself back on her feet and find a way to support herself and her daughter after getting pregnant three years ago. She now works as a nursery school teacher. She advises young women to be more careful that she was, but says she still knows plenty of 18-year-olds who are pregnant She explained, “it is not the fault of the girls, the boys here – I don’t know how to explain it – they act like they are serious, as if you could come home and talk about marriage but when you get pregnant they leave you, and there is no way you can escape.”
When asked if she had access to birth control she simply replied, “no, no”
We spent four days sleeping in the village of Kordié and visiting projects and people sponsored by FITIL in neighboring villages.
Visiting a village in Burkina is like going back in time. There is no electricity, no running water, no internet, no toilets, and just a few old-fashioned cell phones. There are a few men with motorcycles and a rare car. Most of the women and children either walk or use bicycles and have little wooden carts pulled by scrawny donkeys to haul vats of water from the nearest well.
There are gorgeous little children everywhere – remember 65-percent of the population is under 25 – and they are lively and engaging. The school age children took particular interest in these funny looking white people. They were so eager to interact it made me long for an era in the US and Europe when children were not glued to smartphones, ipads and computers. What they wanted most was a soccer ball (football), something that FITIL is providing.
I don’t think I ever saw a woman who was not working. They were using giant mortar and pestles to mash the dried beans. They were picking what looked like peas and plenty of peanuts, and were bent over a tub washing clothing. They were pumping water and hauling it from the wells, they were slaving over huge pots on the fire and carrying loads of firewood on their heads. All these activities with a baby on their back.
I did not have time to do any research or reporting on it, but there are two other interesting issues related to women in Burkina. One is the widespread belief in “Mangeuse d’Ames”, Soul-eaters, or witches. FITIL supports a woman in her late 60s named Rasmata Sondo Tinkiego who lives in Kordié. She was accused of being a soul-eater after her husband’s brother died suddenly. Although Burkina Faso is predominantly Muslim (61-percent) with a significant Catholic population (23-percent), most of the people also believe in witchcraft. Both villagers and people from Ouagadougou who I spoke to believe in the power of magic and traditional ceremonies that are still used to hunt down a “soul-eater”. The ceremony involves an effigy of the dead person being used to lead villagers to the witch.
After the accusation was confirmed in the effigy rite, Rasmata Sondo Tinkiego was stripped down to her underwear and chased out of her village. She was not permitted contact with her 10 children.
Now the charge has been lifted and Rasmata is living in her own home, financed by FITIL. When we went to visit her, she danced about, bowing and singing and making a loud clicking noise on her hand. She offered us drinks from a gourd and gave Bettie a chicken.
(Little sidebar here. When you are close to someone in Burkina Faso, you greet them shaking their hand and sliding off your fingers making a snap off the end of their middle finger as you pull away. It is lovely to see. I have not managed to master the art, but I am still working on it.)
Another topic which I did not have time to explore was that of female circumcision or FGM (female genital mutilation). Although the practice was banned in Burkina Faso in 1996, according to UNICEF 76-percent of women in Burkina Faso between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, many in unsanitary conditions with traditional cutters using rudimentary tools. This topic was too complicated to investigate on this trip, but I would be interested in learning more in the future although it is not a subject that one can waltz in and address casually. In September, an Italian priest who has fought the practice of FGM was kidnapped on the border between Niger and Burkina Faso.
I was struck by the combination of natural beauty and elegance of the Burkinabé women combined with their own efforts, notwithstanding the economic challenges, to be fashionable. Women in the cities and villages were dressed in elegant cloths, often with matching headdresses. Hairdressers lined the streets of Ouagadougou and some country roads. Women had all sorts of elaborate hair fashions and even little girls in the village have plaits laden with plastic beads. I stopped by one hairdresser to get a little background and she told me that in Burkina “all the women are beautiful” but they must keep up appearances so they spend a lot of time and considerable money to have their hair done, whether it is with complicated hair extensions, which can cost up to 10,000 CFA (15 euros), or to get their girls’ hair plaited with beads for 250 CFA (38 euro cents)
Although a week-long visit was barely enough to give me any understanding of the country, I was left with a profound impression about the women and a concern for the young girls. The girls are born into a hierarchical society where they are likely to face a lifetime of labor. They risk having to go through FGM, they are not likely to be given access to birth control and if they get pregnant as a teenager, they run the risk of being deserted by the child’s father and sometimes their own family.
That said, the women I met were smart, tough, capable and beautiful. FITIL and other groups are doing outstanding work with the assistance of talented Burkinabe’ like the brilliant Bako Besoin, who runs FITIL in Ouagadougou.
I will close with the post with a video I made of the indefatigable Bako on the road. Click here to see it: BAKO VIDEO
And here is my video of the invicible Bettie Petith. She has also said I should include her email address in case anyone wants to write to her about FITIL ad the work in Burkina Faso. It is: [email protected] . Click here to see: BETTIE VIDEO
If anyone is interested in knowing more about the work of FITIL, check out their website: