Emily and the Baileys in Burkina Faso

Emily is The Angel’s very own intrepid explorer.  She is the daughter of Denis and Juliet Watkins, is married to Richard Bailey and they have a wonderful family of three children, Peter, Sam and Esther.

They are stationed in Ouagadougou (pronounced /ˌwɑːɡəˈduːɡuː/) as Richard works for the United Nations!

The airport must surely be one of the worst in the world. I was truly confused. I thought perhaps we had come in through the wrong entrance and had found ourselves in an adjacent cattle shed. I met Richard with a mixture of deep relief and complete bemusement. I think probably my expression said something like “Hi darling, missed you, now tell me this is not the real airport, and if it is, it is definately not a fair representation of the rest of the country…..” However, within a half hour a little bit of my tired and defensive heart softened, as I watched sammy and Esther take off their shoes, get down on the floor and start drawing pictures in the sand. I took a deep breath and allowed myself to recall the hours of spent joy watching Peter and sammy do the same thing three years ago, in another land of strange people and customs. A land and people I grew to love and have carried in my heart ever since….

Our bags arrived but our car seats went to the Ivory Coast. Thats fine, better the car seats than the kids dvd’s or my makeup bag…..

We have taken the house of one of Richard’s colleagues who is departing for senegal shortly. It seemed the simplest thing to do. The prospect of house hunting with three children and no vehicle in a city whose streets are like a rabbit warren of dust and pot holes, with only enough french vocab to order cafe au lait, and in 90 degree heat was overwhelming. It really was as simple as “Its a house, we’ll take it”. We have just been in for 2 weeks as it was not vacant until September 4th. We had been staying in two rooms in a hotel in the centre of Ouagadougou for the first 4 weeks . The house is a convenient walk to the American International school where both the boys have started. Its big and has a small paved garden area with a small pool which I’m told will save our lives when the temperatures hit 45 degree’s in April. There is not an “Expat” area as such. It seems like many of the foreigner’s live in the same areas but the plots are interspersed with some of the better off Burkinabe family homes too. I like this. Its all mixed up. The road our house is on, is a long dirt road with some truly magnificent pot holes. Rich is planning on buying a moped to get around on like many of the local Burkinabe’s do, I am really looking forward to watching him take on some of those potholes.

The city itself is raw. A hot, bustling, dust clogged, melting pot of African culture, rich in colour, full of life. It is unlike any other African Capital we have been to, far less developed, with most small businesses operating out of shacks or stalls road side. The sky is undisturbed by anything even resembling a high rise. There are a few tarmac roads running through the city and these are used by vehicles, donkeys, mopeds alike. There are simply no rules on the roads, no sidewalks and crossing the road generally feels like a game of Russian roulette. Terrifying. Everywhere people are selling anything – Bedding and towels draped over walls, shirts and mosquito nets hanging from tree’s, pots and pans sitting in the orange dust. As you walk, you are approached from all directions by local folks wanting to sell you everything from phonecards to bathroom scales to prayer mats, but mostly they accept a polite no thank you and let you go on your way. It can be overwhelming, but at no point have I felt threatened or hassled. We buy our fruit from women on the street who look like their carrying more than their body weight in banana’s and pineapples on their heads. At dusk, the sky is filled with hundreds upon hundreds of bats calling in the night sky with their batsong. I will always think these to be some of the strangest creatures on the planet.

The streets are full of beggers, many of them just children or the blind elderly, holding out their metal tins and seeing through you with their watery eyes. Some are so handicapped there really isn’t anything to say. I was approached a couple of weeks back by a lady who’s fingers looked like they had been ravaged and eaten by leprosy or some other terrible disease. Her hands were horribly deformed. I stood there looking into her face as she said “Please Madame” and I just couldn’t find a response. It was not that I didn’t feel compassion, neither that I felt disgust at her deformity. It was more a matter of, ” what on earth should my response be?” Then I took out some change and went to put it in her hand, but she couldn’t hold it so I put it in her pocket and walked away. No words. It felt like a frugal response.

I believe fundamentally in the core of my being that all men are equal. I am so grateful that God has given me a heart which knows compassion and can be moved to feel something of another’s pain, and I know that these are questions that I will wrestle with until the day I die, but honestly, sometimes I feel it would be so much easier if I could find justification for the void between my world and the world of the lady with no fingers and the millions of others like her. It is much too easy to console myself with the fact that my husband is giving his life’s work to fighting for equality and justice for the poor. To reassure myself that we have made a few sacrifices along the way to do what we do, so I’m doing “my bit”. And I am faced with the shallow truth that it matters so much more, now that I have to stare at it every day. The lady with no fingers was here last year when I was living in Manhattan choosing to send my 4 yr old to posh nursary for 10,000 a year.

Excuse me for publicly wrestling with such questions. Its good to be wrestling though….

Burkina Faso means “The land of honourable men”. I was told by a Senegalese friend in NYC that the Burkinabe are known to be some of the warmest and kindest people in West Africa. So far, I think she pretty much summed the Burkinabe up. I’ll share a story…..Its a little gross though so bear with me.

We were so sick the first weeks whilst in the hotel. four weeks in, our systems were still adjusting, and it was not good, if you get my drift…..

I took the kids to a recommended restaurant one day for a “safe” pizza. We were just finishing up when I heard Esther cry out from behind me, I turned to find Esther in total panic as the contents of her poorly tummy was running out of her nappy , down her legs and all over the floor. And it wasn’t stopping. I joined in her panic and started trying to mop up the mess with some baby wipes and tissues, all the while trying to get her clothes off, calm her and call to the troupes for help. Both boys started gagging – honestly, whatever you are picturing, now x it by 10 for a true picture of how bad it was. Stay with me, the story gets better. All of a sudden our waiter was standing next to me, I turned to him in complete mortification and apologising over and over, asked him, in my very bad french, to bring me a plastic bag. He just looked at me and said “Give it all to me” I was horrified, I mean, It was really really bad. “No I can’t” I said “It is terrible, really, really terrible, Please just a bag Monsieur”. Then this Burkinabe stranger stood before me, opened his arms wide to me and said “You are my sister. Please give it all to me”. He then took the pile of stinking soiled wipes, tissues and nappy out of my hands and walked away.

He did not do this thing out of duty, or because he felt subservient to me. I saw it in his eyes. He meant it. He saw my dilema, my embarrassment, and felt no disdain or hostility towards me. And he then responded in the most profoundly natural way. In love and kindness. I was humbled. I am honestly not sure I could have done the same.

So all of a sudden I find myself back with the lady with no fingers. I guess according to the Burkinabe world view, she is my sister. Infact, according to my own world view she is my sister. So the question therefor must be, How do I love? Its definitely complicated, or is it?…

Questions, questions.

The heat is very manageable right now, and the rains come hard and often, so there is quite a lot of green, but I know the landscape will change dramatically in the next few months and life will be harder for everyone.

We are in the process of buying a big pothole defeating vehicle, and are looking forward to exploring the real Burkina Faso, beyond the Capital. This is a country so untouched by tourism, that I hope and expect there will be many chances to see genuine culture, ritual and daily life of the Burkinabe people. I’m excited.

Onto the kids. They are happy. I continue to be amazed and blessed by Peter’s capacity for change. Sam is also doing great, after a shakey first couple of weeks at school, he is now seeming more settled in a ‘loud and slightly volatile’ Sammy kind of way. The 7am school start is a bit of an adjustment, probably more for me than anyone, but having Melissa here is a huge help as she is a ‘spring out of bed’ type, rather than a ‘grunt until 2nd cup of tea’ type, like me. Esther is fine, but asks daily to go home. I’m not sure if she means the UK, New york or the hotel in Ouagadougou! I said to her yesterday, “This is our new home Esi” to which she replied in great frustration, “No its not our home, Its got no chairs!”

Bad news about our shipment. The shipping company in NYC has gone bankrupt. Hows ya luck eh? We managed to trace the container to Ghana, and have managed to trace the paperwork stating that its contents belong to us, but we don’t know if the bills have been paid or exactly how we will get it to Burkina. Reminding myself daily, that its just stuff and money…..

The French is hard. Really hard. I’m having a couple of lessons a week and generally making a fool of myself on a daily basis…..My mushy mummy brain is a little overwhelmed but I do find that giving ‘English in a french accent’ a go, often works. The kids are in french class daily and Sammy is in a class with almost all Francophone kids, which is tough for him, but I think it will help him learn faster. Even Esi got out of a taxi last week and said “Merci” with no prompting, and then held out her banana skin to me last night saying “where’s the poubelle”.

I don’t want to say too much on behalf of Rich, but he has just landed himself a smacking job with the office here, despite not having the language totally nailed yet. The office is a tough environment and he has come in at a time of management change. But you know Rich, at his best under pressure and he loves a challenge.

So we are good. Friendships are hard,the language is hard, the heat and the environment are hard but I keep reminding myself that it takes time to adjust. I am also aware that we have just hit the 6 week mark, which is always when I go into crisis – the novelty has worn off, it hits me that we are not on vacation, and that the random donkey wandering around outside my house is going to be the first friendly face I see every morning for the next two years…..

Lifes a riot.

One Response to Emily and the Baileys in Burkina Faso

  1. Jim Grimes January 9, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    Dear Em Rich & Kids
    We hsve read you account and are deeply moved by it. We wish you strength and courage, good health, faith and humour to sustain you and the kids on this formative challenge. love Jim and Lorna.