See how American expat Beth lives with her family in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

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Beth Jacob

September 07 2006

-Where were you born?
I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. But as I had absolutely no interest in college football, I had to leave as soon as possible.

-In which country and city are you living now?
I'm living in Ouagadougou. It's the capital of Burkina Faso. I have to admit that before I met my husband (who is a researcher specializing in Burkina)
I had never heard of the place. In high school, I remember hearing about Upper Volta. I spent far too much passing notes to friends and somehow got the impression that it was a country in Eastern Europe. I think the similarities between "Volta" and "Volga" threw me. I am happy to report that my knowledge of geography has improved considerably over the last 20 years.

Before moving here, I lived for four years in Geneva, Switzerland and five years in France. I think that my time in France was a good training period for
Africa. The hardships of living here would have struck me much more if I would have gone straight from the comforts of the USA to the lifestyle here. I had a chance to get used to inconvenient shop hours, squat toilets, "strange" food, etc...

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I'm here with my French husband and our four children. My husband is an ethnographer and has been doing research here on and off for the last
25 years. The children were all quite young when we moved: our oldest was only five and the twins were just one. Coming here with children presents certain challenges. Bring along all must-have treats, as you will find only French and Lebanese products in the shops and they are very expensive.

Bring along all holiday and birthday gifts if you are here for a long period. Don't count on sending your children to a public school. Class sizes are enormous and the quality of teaching is very poor.

-How long have you been living in Burkina Faso?
We moved here in August of 1999. We really weren't planning to stay for so long. When we signed up, it was for two years. Then we got offered another two years. And at the end of that, two more....and here we are, seven years later.

-What is your age?
Most Burkinabé have only a vague idea of their age. But I have to admit that, unlike most Burkinabé, I do actually have a birth certificate.

I just recently turned 41. Ouch.

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Burkina Faso?
My husband was offered a two-year research position here with the French government. He is a cultural anthropologist and it was a chance to leave off teaching at the University of Geneva and just do fieldwork. It was a great opportunity for him, but I was very unsure about the move.

I had spent one month visiting Burkina in 1994 and it had gone rather badly. I and our one-year old daughter got very ill and had to leave. So, I knew firsthand about the low level of medical care and other concerns here. I was especially worried about bringing our youngest children. But the salary they offered my husband was quite good, with a special allowance for any accompanying spouse and children. The allowance ended up being just as much as his salary. We decided to get good health insurance and take the risk. By living carefully (but not too uncomfortably, we hoped), we figured that we could actually save money by living here. And we did. But I warn you, you have to be strong! You can't have ravioli and air-conditioning every day! And you have to say "no" a lot to the kids.

Another incentive to accept was the fact that the employer offered plane tickets to Europe for our family every summer. If we had to pay for airfare every year, we would have eaten up all of our savings. Ouaga-Paris roundtrip is usually 800,000 cfa with Air France. That's about $1,600. There are some carriers with cheaper rates, but they are less dependable. So, if you must be back to work by a certain date, they can really give you a headache. If you are hired by an organization here, do not hesitate to bargain for yearly trips back home. It is not as outrageous a demand as it might seem.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
It is quite easy to get a visa to come here. Just send your passport to the Burkina Embassy in Washington DC, or get one at the airport here when you arrive! It doesn't cost much.

There is lots of work in the informal sector here -- teaching English and such and you certainly don't need a work permit for that. But if you do stumble onto a decent job with an NGO or somewhere else that requires a work permit, they will help you get one. It is not terribly difficult. All things are possible here, as personal contacts and small bribes work wonders. One interesting thing is that it is relatively simple to get Burkinabé citizenship. After you have lived here four or five years, it is an option. Taxes are quite cheap here and it really is something to consider if you want to buy a house and really settle in.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
It is vital to get the best medical coverage you can afford before you come. I cannot stress this enough, particularly if you are arriving with children and/or expect to be pregnant while you are here. Medical care here is beyond poor, even in the capital city. An accident or illness that would be serious but not fatal in Europe or the USA can easily kill you here, due to the lack of medical facilities. So, make sure you have excellent medical evacuation coverage as part of your package. This kind of insurance is not hard to get in Europe, but it can be expensive.

-How do you make your living in Burkina Faso? Do you have any type of income generated?
When we arrived, my husband had his dream job waiting for him and I had four disoriented children to manage. The initial adjustment was hard and I was very glad that I didn't have to work outside the home and bring back money. It was a lot of work getting the house up and running smoothly. If you have children, it's best if one of the parents can devote at least a few months to getting the home life organized. It can be very hard if both parents immediately have to start working.

Yes, there are nannies and cooks available quite cheaply here. But you will all need some time to adjust to each other, and few locals speak English. So if you haven't come equipped with French, you will have a hard time at first.

After living here a year, I knew I had to do something. Burkina is a desperately poor country, consistently near the very bottom of any quality of life lists that the UN puts out. Daily life here puts you in a face to face position here with people who are dying of malnutrition, HIV, malaria and hosts of other preventable problems. You either roll up the car windows and stare straight ahead, or you do something to help.

As my husband has been a consultant on hundreds of development projects, I had a very good grip on the problems with aid in developing countries. I decided not to look for a job in an NGO as I felt it would be more frustrating than doing nothing...all that money wasted on big trucks, air-conditioned offices and huge salaries. I looked for volunteer work in hospitals and orphanages. I found that there are huge opportunities to make a difference as a volunteer in small,
grassroots organisations. They are desperate for people to help at all levels- you can take care of orphaned babies, fundraise, translate documents, run errands...

I worked for a while at an orphanage, then began my own project! With a friend, who is a pediatric nurse, I set up a nutrition program for malnourished children. And with mothers of the children involved in this project, I set up a second project, "Papiers du Sahel." It is a group of 19 women who make recycled paper. It has been running for five years now. The income from this project allows them to feed their children and send them to school.

I don't make a cent off the project, but it means a lot to me. It has allowed me to bond with women who have lives vastly different from mine. They helped me learn Mooré as they told me about the intricacies of Burkinabé family life, both good and bad. I have learned a lot about polygamy, forced marriages, and domestic violence. If you are interested in the project, have a look at our site.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
Before we came to Africa, I spent four years living in Switzerland and five living in France, so I had French mastered pretty well. It made the transition SO much easier for me. I see people arrive here and struggle to learn French as they adapt to a very different lifestyle. It seems very difficult. And even worse are the ones who don't even make the effort and just stay in their expat comfort zone, never venturing beyond their Embassy and the International School.

The Burkinabé are lovely people and to know them, you HAVE to speak the language: at minimum French and even better if you also speak Mooré, the language of the dominant ethnic group of the central plateau. The latter is, obviously, difficult to learn before you come, so I recommend getting a solid background in French before coming and then taking Mooré lessons as soon as you arrive. You can quickly learn all the greetings that are so important to smooth social functioning here. I have found that the Burkinabé are delighted when they find that I speak some Mooré. They expect all white people to speak French, but they are pleased and astonished by those who make the effort to learn their language.

The Burkinabé are very gentle, polite people who set great store by social niceties. If you want to get to know "real" Burkinabé (as opposed to con-artists and various undesirables) you need to:
1. Speak French decently.
2. Know at least a few polite phrases in Mooré (It's not hard. "Laafi Beemé" means "How are you?" and "I am fine" depending on inflection). Just those two words can really help break the ice.
3. Dress appropriately. It's a free country. A woman can wear shorts, mini skirts, pants, etc., and the polite Burkinabé will seldom make you feel uncomfortable. But it really is not part of their cultural norm to accept this. Modesty demands that women be covered from belly button to ankles. Shirts are optional. Yes, a Burkinabé person really IS more shocked to see your thighs than he/she would be to see your breasts.

The best thing to do is to go native and wear the local style of wrap skirt called a "pagne." They are beautiful, cool, cheap and a GREAT conversation starter. I cannot count the number of times that I have been approached by Burkinabé people who said "You are wearing a pagne! I didn't know white women knew how! How wonderful!" Of course, wealthier folks in the capital are more used to the oddities of foreigners, but if you are going to be out in the villages or working in very poor neighborhoods in the city, the pagne is a good way to show the Burkinabé women that you are really a person and not some kind of extraterrestrial. For men, I advise not wearing shorts. Yes, this is a very hot country, but shorts are considered very undignified. They are only for schoolboys and clueless tourists, and you don't want to be mistaken for either.

Burkina is very mixed religiously and very easy-going on that front. I have known people to baptise their children in three different religions: Islam, Christian and traditional! Just remember the basics: most Muslims here will not shake hands with a person of the opposite sex. If you see a mask dance out in the streets, it is a traditional religious event and not a tourist attraction. Don't take photos. People here, whatever their creed, are very religious minded. Cursing and swearing are frowned upon.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Are you kidding? That's the absolute worst thing about living overseas. Since we moved here, both my father-in-law and my grandfather have died. It was absolutely horrible not to be there to say goodbye and not to even go to the funerals.

The Internet has made being here more bearable than it used to be. And even if you can't afford a home connection, there are heaps of internet cafés here where you can be on the internet for 300 cfa per hour (less than one dollar). Being able to exchange e-mails and photos has made it much easier to be far from family. Also, the post here works astonishingly well. My parents send regular packages to us and not one has ever been lost!! Some people don't have such excellent experiences with the post office here, but there is a reason for this: I am naturally outgoing. I got to know most of the folks down at the post office and at the customs office by name. They know who I am and look out for my packages. This didn't come about as a calculated move; I have just found that it is more fun to be friendly than to ignore the people who surround us. And this is an attitude that fits very well with the Burkinabé worldview.

As for fun in Burkina -- around Ouaga there are lots to do. Horseriding is a popular option. There are no fewer than THREE good riding clubs in Ouaga. Our favorite is the "Oasis du Cheval." It is the only club owned by a local, rather than an expat. You can have riding lessons, go for a trail ride around the countryside or even go on a camping trip. These are great fun and highly recommended.

There are lots of pools around Ouaga. The big hotels each have one and you can swim for a fee. Some houses even have pools. One good pool is at the American Recreation Center. It's a club run by the US Embassy in the center of town.

There is tennis, a small gym, a video club and a good restaurant. One great option for fun here is to take lessons. You can learn to play the djembé, make a bogolan (mud cloth), do batik, play the flute, draw, paint...there are lots of private instructors available.

Traveling outside the city, you can see sacred crocodiles in several places, go on safari and see tons (ha!) of elephants at the Nazinga Ranch near Po, visit the intricately painted mud huts Tiebele and see the hippos in Lake Tengrela. One of my favorite trips is up to the big market at Gorom Gorom and then beyond into the desert to the campground of Gandefabou. You can sleep in a Tuareg hut and do a camel trek. It's lovely -- really peaceful.

Another high point of being here is the annual Winyé mask festival. It takes place near Boromo each February and is really quite amazing. There you will see dancers wearing the huge red, black and white Gourounsi-style masks. It is quite spectacular and you can take pictures.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
When our last contract is done here in the summer of 2008 we are planning to go back to our old farmhouse in the Alps.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Housing exists at all prices and levels. You can rent a small room for the equivalent of about 6 dollars a month or a luxury mansion for 30000 dollars a month.

Unfortunately, houses that meet the needs of the average expat family are very much in demand and rents are relatively high. We pay 800 dollars a month for our home. It has three normal-sized bedrooms and three miniscule ones (if you put a double bed in, you can't walk around). It is about thirty years old, the roof leaks and the electrical system has a habit of bursting into flame. There is a small pool for the children and a large garden. We are lucky to have it -- all my friends are jealous of the "good deal" we have going. Our rent has not been raised since we came seven years ago. Now, people are paying that price for houses that are much smaller -- only three bedrooms and no pool. Another thing to note is that the kitchens in Burkinabé houses are very bad. In general, they are tiny and miserably uncomfortable, even in huge mansions. This is because the designers assume that only servants will be using it. So, if you really love cooking, plan on doing major renovations in the kitchen. Most landlords will let you do these kind of improvements, but will not reimburse you for them.

You can, of course, live much more modestly, but if you want running water, electricity and tile floors rather than bare cement, prices are pretty high. There are lots of NGOs, the World Bank, the European Union, etc., all of them competing for housing for their personnel and this has driven up the prices steadily.

-What is the cost of living in Burkina Faso?
Well, there are millions of people living here on less than one dollar per day. So, I guess you could say the cost of living is low. Millet and cornmeal are very reasonable. With a nice sauce made out of baobab leaves, you are fine. That's how the majority of people here live. But if you want to eat imported foods or use any kind of imported product, the cost of living is stratospheric. A package of frozen fish sticks costs about 9 dollars last time I was at Marina Market (the biggest grocery store in the country). A box of laundry soap costs anywhere from 10 to 25 dollars. Food, toys, books, clothes...anything not made here costs the earth. To cope with the high cost of everything, it's best to eat as simply as possible. You buy fresh fruits and vegetables as cheaply as you can at the outdoor market and go from there. At first, you'll need lots of help to shop at the market. Few of the merchants speak any French and many will insist on charging you four or five times the going rate. The only way to shop and stay sane is to speak Mooré and know the proper prices for all the goods you need.

I knew a Canadian who arrived here and went to the market to buy a pair of plastic sandals. She paid 5 dollars for them. The going rate is 600 cfa (that's about $1.20), but she hadn't thought to ask anyone before setting out.

-What do you think about the locals?
This is a very tricky question, as it can be hard to make sweeping generalizations about the citizens of a country. But I'll give it a try, with the disclaimer that people are individuals and there is a lot of variability.

My husband has worked all over Africa for the last 30 years and he thinks that the Burkinabé (as a general rule) are the kindest, most patient, most helpful and most tolerant people of anywhere he's ever been. I have not seen as much of the world as he has, but I would tend to agree. I have found the Burkinabé very pleasant to deal with. Their good spirits and energy in the face of huge obstacles constantly amaze me.

On the other hand, economic realities can make thing very difficult. Most expats here have far more money than the average Burkinabé. This can lead to what we might see as inappropriate demands. I was friends with a pharmacist here who got quite angry at me when I refused to take her three-year old daughter on vacation to France with me. For me, a "real" friend would never ask such a thing if they had the money to do it. For her, a "real" friend could never refuse.

Expectations at cross-purposes can create tension in friendships. My only advice is to not let yourself be pushed into doing and giving things that you'd rather not.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Burkina Faso?
The best thing about living here is the fact that my four children are well insulated from the consumerist, television-based culture that seems to dominate in the developed countries. Here we have no TV, no malls, no junk food. The concept of name brands doesn't exist for them. It's hard to explain, but my kids are very naive and very sophisticated at the same time. They are just as happy in $10 tennis shoes as in Adidas (or whatever) trainers. But they see hunger, poverty and ill-health on a daily basis and they know that we ALL have to work to stop these things.

The worst thing about being here is the health risks. Meningitis, typhoid and cholera are not uncommon, along with a host of other diseases. Malaria is rampant and can easily kill you. HIV/AIDS is 30% among the disadvantaged people I work with in the city.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Burkina Faso?
1. Facing the poverty and misery that exist in Burkina can be very difficult. Some people deal with it by saying "It's not my problem." Make it your problem. Find at least one thing to do while you are here that will improve the lives of people.
2. Have lots of emergency lighting on hand. The power is usually off about once per day.
3. Don't walk around the Avenue Kwamé N'Krumah after dark unless you are with a LARGE group of people.
4. If you see a product that you like in a shop, buy every bit of it. You may never see it again.
5. Check the expiration dates on EVERYTHING you buy that has one.
6. Don't bring tons of medicines and first aid supplies. Pharmacies in the capital are good, there are cheap generic meds. And you don't need a prescription. You can just waltz in and have all the antibiotics you want, very cheaply. Codeine, even!
7. Try not to feel too weird/bad/uncomfortable about having household help; I had some German friends who couldn't stand the idea of someone working in their home. They refused to hire a cook, cleaner or nanny and were absolutely hated by the Burkinabé because of this. They were considered to be stingy people, unwilling to give needy people jobs that could feed their families. The locals could not believe the explanation that these people simply preferred to do their own housework. They were taking bread out of the mouths of children, and that was that.

So, hiring people is a considered to be a great social good. All middle to upper class people here have household help, Burkinabé and expat alike. It is not expensive. For example: an experienced cook makes about $120 per month. These jobs keep families going, both theirs and yours. Cooking in Burkina is a labor-intensive job. Marketing is done daily, all fruit and vegetables must be disinfected. All water filtered. All clothes ironed. Most foods are made from scratch. It's impossible to rush home from work and "throw something together."
Cleaning house, too, is a complicated affair, as the whole country is filled with a fine red dust that covers the interior of your house daily. If you can afford it, (and you probably can) hire at least a cook.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Burkina Faso?
BurkinaMom's Life in Africa. This is my blog. I try to write about my life here in what I hope is an entertaining way.

Beth, Thanks so much for

Viviane's picture

Beth,
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences about living in Burkina Faso. It has helped me to understand more about the local people and the culture itself. My husband has been offered a job in the capital and it is likely that we will be moving there in the summer. I have three children 12, 7 and 4 and am curious about the school system that are available there. Do you have any recommendations?
I thought about your German friends not wanting to have any household help was interesting. I'm glad you mentioned them because I too was not exactly looking forward to having a cook, or a nanny mostly because of my experiences with nannies and house cleaners. I wonder if it was because I was too lenient and too nice to them that they all took advantage of me. Does the project you created still exist? I would like to go and visit it and would like to do volunteer work also.
Thanks again,
Viviane