A Line in the Sand

A team of auditors came out to the project site to visit some of our community investments in the field. We had installed shipping containers in project-impacted communities that they could use as social and educational spaces, then came with soda and paints and paintbrushes for community members to paint the containers and make them their own. I was asked to take the auditors on a tour of the containers, so we packed into the truck and were on our way.

There are no paved roads within 20 miles of the site, and what remains are only roads in the sense that people don’t actually plant crops on them very often. Sometimes the road takes odd doglegs if someone has decided to build a house on this flat, pre-hardened stretch of land, and several times I’ve seen pits sunk a meter deep into the path because someone’s metal detector beeped as he crossed the road. At different times of the year the same stretch of track can be a pit of gluey mud, a tunnel between walls of eerily whispering grass, or a sandbox that boils into dust at the slightest disturbance. When I left the site six weeks ago the terrain was lush and people were harvesting their crops, but now the land is prickly, dusty and dry. I knew where all the sites I wanted to visit were except for one, and I asked my colleague to refresh me on the directions. “Just drive past the mango grove on your right and turn left after the village counselor’s compound.” he said. “You can’t miss it.”

Well he was wrong, because I could miss it. We drove past farms that looked like all of the others in the area; scattered karité and cashew trees standing alone in fields coated with delicate black ash from where farmers had burned off groundcover. I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t recognize these trees and we were in the wrong place. I checked my satellite GPS and sure enough our little blue arrow had nudged over the border of Côte d’Ivoire. We had overshot the village by a kilometer and ended up in a foreign country. We did a quick K-turn and returned to Burkina Faso, and the rest of the trip passed without incident.

Even though none of the airlines will ever allow me into their executive lounges, the fact is that I fly a lot. Crossing the border in an airport or an international ground checkpoint is a big deal, and the situation is handled with appropriate gravitas. You fill out a waxy ink-resistant form with your place of birth and occupation, the border control agent frowns at you through the glass and checks your passport, yellow fever vaccination and visa, and finally with a satisfying CHUNK she stamps your documents and sends you on your way. Often there’s a line painted on the ground, and as you cross it you feel the air become thicker or thinner or lighter or warmer or heavier, somehow DIFFERENT, from the air of the country that you have just technically left.

This time I felt none of that. One moment I was traveling through the sooty cotton fields of one nation, and the next moment I was in another sovereign state. As we visited the sites on the checklist I reflected on the fact that the border I had just crossed had been drawn by some unknown Frenchman in the 1800s—both Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are former French colonies, so the line between them is recent and arbitrary. If his hand had quivered as he laid the ruler on the page to draw a line I may never have entered Côte d’Ivoire at all, or perhaps I would have driven 2 kilometers into foreign territory before realizing my mistake. The people native to this region hardly make a distinction between the two nations: they cross the border at will to attend markets or visit family on the other side. Six months ago I spent an 14 hour stretch in the Abidjan airport sleeping on a bench under fluorescent lights because I had an unexpected layover and no visa in my passport to pass through the sliding doors where good food and hotels awaited me. Same country, different border crossings, different result.

The solution is simple. Burkina Faso must build a beautiful, tremendous wall on its southern border. This will be unprecedented for Burkinabé engineering, because it will come in ahead of schedule and under budget. Send the bill to Mexico.

 

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This is how the container looked when I found it…

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…and this is what I found inside.

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