The mine was interested in sponsoring local people to attend technical training classes on welding, plumbing, electrical work and carpentry. If you send a cohort of 20 people out for training it’s a positive addition to the community: they learn a trade, get a certificate of completion at the end, and the mine can hire two or three of the top performers and train them as apprentices. I was dispatched to meet with potential training partners and assess their capacity.
One of my colleagues had driven past a brand new polytechnic school on the outskirts of the nearest large town, and recommended that I start my search there. I got the number of the school’s founder and called him. I explained briefly that I worked for the mine, was exploring potential training partners, and wanted to visit the school and see their facilities and learn about their training courses. He was effusive. “Our workshop—gorgeous. Absolutely state of the art, cutting edge equipment, all the newest gear. Bilingual education in French and English. Internationally educated teaching staff. What programs are you interested in?” I told him briefly, and at each one he told me that there was no finer school in Burkina Faso, possibly the whole world, to teach those subjects. “Our curriculum is flexible!” he said in closing. “We can design our programs to meet any of your requirements.” This last line should have tipped me off to what was coming, but I’m a bit slow and just assumed he was enthusiastic.
The town isn’t far from our site on the map, but the roads are terrible and it takes two hours to drive there. I went with a colleague who had to do other errands, and he dropped me off at the school on the outskirts of town and we agreed to meet again in the late afternoon to return. The building was simple but brand new, with a sparkling concrete wraparound porch and fresh paint.
I walked into the main office to find the secretary asleep literally facedown on her desk. Her arms dangled by her side and her forehead was balanced on the teacher’s directory. I coughed a few times but she didn’t stir. I scraped an iron chair across the floor. She raised her head and squinted at me. I told her I wanted to speak with the founder, and she gestured to the door behind her and then replaced her head on the desk.
I opened the door to find a middle-aged man sitting in a dim room staring at me as if he had been waiting all week for my visit. The desk didn’t have anything on it—not a pencil or a scrap of paper—but the walls of the room were lined with binders and papers in crenellated mounds up to two feet high. I asked him if I had the pleasure of addressing the same gentleman I had spoken with on the phone two days yore, and he shook his head mournfully. “The founder lives in Ouagadougou,” he told me. “Our General Director has been traveling for the last two weeks, and our Principal recently accepted a position as an accountant on a poultry farm. I am the Adjoint General Director. You are most welcome.” I was a little shaken by this news, but I sat down and launched into my list of questions.
I asked how many students were enrolled in the school currently, and he reached behind him, located a piece of paper that had been torn from a lined notebook and consulted it. “156,” he said. “I just walked past a few classrooms and there was hardly anyone in there. And it’s a Friday.” I said. He nodded slowly. “Last Friday was a holiday, and not all of the students own calendars. Perhaps some of them think it is last week.” This didn’t make any sense to me, but I moved on. I asked what equipment they had…welders, mig/tig/acetylene, circuit boards, solar panels, plumbing supplies, etc. He rolled his chair to a different stack of paper on the floor and handed me a printed list. “This is all of the equipment for our workshop. The founder plans to place an order tomorrow.” “But you don’t have any of this stuff now?” I said, “I need to know what will be available to any students we send here. What do you have?” He blinked and then said slowly, “That’s a procurement list. When the equipment arrives here and is installed, it will be available. Everything on that list that is delivered here will be available.” I asked about the bilingual education, and was told that one of the teachers had lived in Ghana for a bit and understood the lyrics to several Michael Jackson songs.
The office was making me claustrophobic and I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing much. I asked for a tour of the facilities. He nodded ruefully as if he was a man who was born to suffer and give tours of facilities, and then pushed back his chair and directed me past the sleeping secretary. We walked past the classrooms, all of which were brand new and barely used. The blackboards had the kinds of equations you see in New Yorker cartoons; figures that fill whole panels and Greek symbols. Some of the boards made references to Computer-Aided Design programs, another listed building code regulations in France. Another board explained that triangles can be identified because they always have three sides. Out the window I could see rice fields.
I asked to see the workshop where students did hands on training. He led me around the corner of the building and pointed without irony at a large field where several cows ripped hunks of grass from the stony ground. “The students will build the workshop themselves, thereby learning structural engineering, welding, foundation construction and plumbing and electrical connections,” he said. “We are awaiting a partnership that will give us the funds to buy the equipment and materials to construct the workshop. Then the teachers will come, because they will be impressed by the project and ready to work hard to ensure their future at the school. Then the students will come, because the teachers will inspire them. Other enterprises will want to partner with us when they see the quality of students we will produce. This will be the greatest technical school in Burkina Faso, if not the world.”
I thought carefully about the verbs the school’s founder had used over the phone, and it occurred to me that he never said that any of these facilities existed yet. I thanked the Adjoint General Director for his time and shook his hand. He thanked me for visiting, then asked if the mine was hiring, and if so, how could he submit an application?