Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Wheels of Justice

Last night I was on my way into town to eat sushi and go to a hip hop concert when I got stopped by the police.  Traffic stops in Burkina Faso are alarming: there I was, rolling along, when suddenly a guy in military fatigues and a reflective vest jumped into the road 30 feet ahead of me, requiring me to stomp on the brakes with my whole body weight and squeal to a stop right in front of him.  Looking at the other motorists blazing past me, it quickly became clear why this was the modus operandi.  As soon as the savvy motorcyclists around me noticed the guys in orange vests lurking in the twilight next to the road, they either banged a U-turn or revved their engines and cycled to fifth gear, blazing through the checkpoint and challenging anyone to leap out in front of THEM.

So there I was, heartrate at about a trillion and one, face to face with a policeman as kamikaze moto-men shrieked past me on my left.  He told me to turn off my engine and remove my helmet, and then said that I had committed an infraction by riding my motorcycle in the designated motorcycle lane.  “This moto is too big, and you need to ride in the road with the cars,” he said, and then asked for my registration papers, which I didn’t have on me.  This isn’t as big of a deal as it sounds: more than half of the motorcycles on the road are unregistered, and you don’t need a driver’s license or insurance to ride a motorcycle here.  I was sober as a judge, wearing a helmet, had actually slowed down for the traffic stop, was riding a bike with functioning headlights and mirrors, and meanwhile helmetless people on unlighted bikes with no plates were streaking by close enough to clip my rearview mirror.  I pointed this out to the officer, but it became clear that this kind of logic wasn’t going to get me far.  “We will now impound your bike, and you will have to come to the commissariat tomorrow and pay a fine of 12,000 Francs ($20) to recover it.  Failure to appear within 48 hours will mean you forfeit your motorcycle,” he told me, and then paused and said “or, you can pay an incident fine right now, and I’ll let you go with a warning.”   Unfortunately he had forgotten his receipt book at home so he wouldn’t be able to document the transaction, but he was willing to take cash, no problem.

I had places to be and was already late to meet a friend, but I don’t like coercion.  “No receipt, no fine” I told him, and so he shrugged and wheeled my bike over to the side of the road where about two dozen other motos were lined up, waiting to be loaded onto pickup trucks and driven to a holding lot at the commissariat.  Vendors had already set up to sell cakes and cigarettes to the hijacked moto riders, and people milled around eating snacks and chuckling among themselves whenever an overzealous officer got his foot run over by an escapee.  Dear reader, I was in a pickle.  I didn’t want to pay a bribe, but I also knew that if they took my motorcycle I would have to spend a lot of hours and francs at the commissariat on Saturday to get it back.  I weighed my two options, determined that I didn’t like either of them, and decided on Surprise Option C: phone a friend.

I called my coworker Elie, who used to work with the police and knew the district commander for the Patte d’Oie neighborhood, where I had been stopped.  I called him up and explained my situation, and he texted me two minutes later with a name and number that I could call.  I called the number he sent me, and then found the commanding officer at the traffic stop and handed him the phone, saying “Commander Benoît Kaboré would like a word with you.”  The officer talked on the phone for two minutes, then handed my cellphone back to me and walked away without a word.  10 minutes a later a junior officer sidled up to me and asked if I was the one who had Commander Kaboré on the phone earlier.  I told him that yes, I had dialed my dear friend Benoît to chat and mentioned my current situation to him.  The officer nodded, checked my drivers license for the sake of form, and then told me I could go.  I didn’t pay anything, didn’t get a ticket, and spent 45 minutes total at the traffic control.  On the way home I passed the same traffic stop, and the commander who had spoken with Commander Kaboré on the phone waved me through.

The Traffic Jam

Country Roads

I’m sitting on my deck right now listening to the wind rattling the palm fronds and the rhythmic *tink* *tink* of pieces falling off my motorcycle.  Things fall apart.  So far this week I’ve lost the spring that holds the brake pedal, a screw from the speedometer, and two reflectors.  My motorcycle is in a state of entropy: made cheaply in China and rode hard in Burkina, the rain and corrugated roads are taking their toll on this bike.  I’ve been to see Idrissa the mechanic twice this week, and I’ve spent a grand total of 80 cents on the repairs that keep the machine running.

I just got back from three days in the field, and it was excellent.  Living in Ouagadougou, the capital, is completely different from being at home, but being up in the village is again a world apart.  I spent the last two nights in Ouahigouya, 20 miles from the Malian border.  My NGO works in very rural communities, and to get 35 kilometers outside of town takes an hour in a top-of-the-line 4X4 vehicle.  The rainy season is just starting, and the whole landscape is bursting with fresh green shoots pushing from the rocky soil and the boreens.  Burkina Faso is wicked flat and the earth is dry and stony, so instead of building culverts under the road in low places, engineers have built roads with concrete dips in them so that when the land floods, you just drive your car or motorcycle or donkey cart down the swell, through the rushing water, and up to high ground again on the other side.  You could make an Imax movie of the daily commute our field agents take to get to the villages where they work.  At one point our 4X4 lurched down a bank into the middle of a river, paused to engage the four wheel drive, and then with a surge of tires that flung mud up onto the windows charged up a five foot high mudbank on the other side.  One of the field agents we were riding with remarked that we were lucky to have arrived when we did, because if you get here later in the rainy season the roads may sometimes become difficult.

I’m from New England, and the outdoors that I grew up with consists of shady rivers and pine forests muffled in snow.  I’ve had exceptional opportunities to travel and see very isolated parts of the world, but I’m just astounded by the otherworldliness of Northern Burkina.  I saw whistling acacia trees, which are thorny shrubs that grow round gnarls where stinging ants lie in wait to swarm anyone who shakes the bush, and rivers flowing across the middle of roads, and grade school age children alone in the hinterlands of the Sahel watching over flocks of sheep and camels.  The villages we work in are beautifully constructed.  They’re built like citadels with brick and mortar, and the clustered communities are a maze of kitchens, toilets, houses, granaries, and shelters for livestock.  In Uganda the basic unit of a village was the compound: each family had an enclosure, and inside was a kraal for the cattle, a cooking area, the patriarch’s house, and houses for each of the wives and children.  In Burkina the basic unit of a village is the village: people share walls with their neighbors, the rich live next to the poor, and the houses are tightly knit around mosques, millstones, and mango trees.

I love the work that I do, because it exposes me to people and places that I couldn’t conceive of if I had never seen them.  It astonishes me to think about who I am and where I grew up, and to carry all of my memories and experiences with me into the villages of Barga district, Burkina Faso.  I visited one woman who had raised red flags because she hadn’t contributed anything to her savings group in three weeks.  She explained that she hadn’t worked during that time because one of her youngest children had lost two toes after slipping off the back of a bicycle and mashing his foot in the gears, and she had been taking him to the hospital for new bandages every three days.  I met another woman who lived in a grand house with iron doors and windows and milled lumber beams, whose son had sent money back from the goldfields to build her a house in the village.  I sat with another woman who had five children and one goat, and who was working to calculate the benefits she earned by selling soap in a nearby market.  She added all of her revenue and expenses, and calculated that she made six dollars a month.

We’ve got an election coming up in the United States, and I’ve heard a lot of talk about the wealth gap in America.  My experience tells me that while there might be a gap between people who have a lot of money and people who have some money, the chasm between people who have some money and people who have no money is exponentially, immeasurably greater.  What am I to make of the fact that I get invited to households that earn less in a month than I spend on lunch in a day?  It would be so easy for me to empty my pockets and leave 3000 francs with everyone I visit: a hamburger to me, a month’s salary to them.

So I try to remember what I’m here for.  I spent nine months looking for a job like this, because I think I have something to offer.  I want to work at a large scale; not giving a bandage and 1000 francs to every injured kid I meet, but designing systems that can uplift whole communities.  It’s difficult, and there is no simple way to address poverty at this scale.  I’ve visited NGOs that asked themselves the question “why are poor people poor?” and came up with a simple answer: poor people are poor because they don’t have any money.  These NGOs give massive cash transfers and disappear after running a one year followup survey, which confirm the tautology that people who have been given some money have some money.  I believe in the comprehensive approach of the program that I work for.  I love going to the field because it shows me the infinite complications of poverty, and the difficulties that people here experience and their tremendous motivation to improve themselves.  When we ask the Mamas how they’ll spend their revenues from the businesses we catalyze, they have two answers: paying for the health and food security of the children, and paying school fees.  All of our participants look to the future with optimism, and I’ll try to as well.