CWS On the Road: Burkina Faso

This July, Kate and I are traveling around West Africa to scout some new regions for potential CWS expansion. We are traveling to Liberia, Burkina Faso and Togo and will be documenting our trip in a series of blog posts called “CWS on the Road.” The funding for CWS’ expansion trips came this spring from an anonymous donor – THANK YOU for supporting CWS and allowing us to explore the possibility of working in new regions!

After a couple hours back in Tamale – just enough time to enjoy some good food and friends, re-supply our travel bags with clean clothes, and catch some sleep in our own beds – we hit the road once more, with Project Manager Peter Biyam in tow. This time our destination was Burkina Faso, a francophone, landlocked country directly north of Ghana. Several hours of driving and one complicated border crossing later, we found ourselves lost in “the coolest name[d] … capital city in the world” (thanks, Lonely Planet): Ouagadougou. Wonderful Ouaga! Here we would score 1. the most detailed and handy map ever to grace my lap 2. a salad-and-rice-and-tomato sauce obsession that single-handedly fuel the Burkina and Togo exploits of our Ghanian travel buddies (something about the beans-n-rice/chicken-n-rice/food-in-general Burkinabé style did not sit right with the Tamale travelers – culture shock is not a solely Salaminga experience!).

CWS staff do Burkina Faso!

Over the course of a week, we managed to explore the south-west, north-east and south-east of this beautiful country. With our linguistic powers combined (high school French, small small Moré and Hausa), we were able to talk to college grads, cattle herders, chiefs and children that we met along the highway/road/trail/footpath about their water situations. Our strategy was simple: drive to the most remote communities in the least-developed regions, ask lots of questions (“Que’ce-qu’il y a un pumpe dans cette village? Une barrage? Ou allez-vous pour l’eau d’boire?”), and see for ourselves what and how people lived and drank. Along the way we learned lots of new words (puits = well, marigold = stream, fou = crazy, bizarre = you get the picture…) met lots of incredibly friendly, patient and hospitable people, drove down many back-bush roads and only headed for home when the sun set, the rain chased us back, or flooding turned our road to river.

Using rigorous scientific techniques, Kathryn and Peter asses water depth in a hand-dug well. This source was only used for laundry.
Peter and Kate smile as a storm blows past
While our 4×4 could handle a lot, this flooded “road” was too ambitious even for us.

What we found really surprised me. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world; its GDP per capita is half that of Ghana’s. These sorts of economic indicators led me to expect potholed roads, few working pumps and lots of unimproved drinking sources. What we found were higher rates of french-speakers in remote villages than english-speakers in Northern Region (an indicator of educational opportunities and integration into the national economy) and well-maintained roads to put the Tamale – Kumasi highway to SHAME. Most importantly for our work, there seemed to be a consistent and pervasive network of functioning hand-pumps in place. Unlike in Liberia, our anecdotal experience suggested that there was an effective public/private supply chain in place to fix broken pumps – we found much fewer broken pumps, and where we did come across them, people seemed more confident about their repair. The two or three villages that we came across who were drinking from unimproved sources were usually small (less-than-five houses) and new: certainly not to be dismissed, but maybe just waiting to be incorporated into what seems like a competent existing water network.

Peter checks out a working pump – this was the oldest model we saw, working since 1985!
Just like in Northern Region, women and girls in Burkina are responsible for collecting their family’s water. Here a few gather by one of the village’s several pumps to fetch drinking water for their family. Looks clean!
Though most villages have pumps, surface water are still important sources of water for life in rural communities. This lake will be a source of drinking water for the five houses in remote Ambara until it dries up in the spring. The water situation in Ambara is atypical for Burkina, but still deserves attention.

All this is not to say that Burkina Faso is an under-the-radar utopia. Burkinabés’ lives seem to be difficult in many of the ways that life is difficult in Ghana, and the water situation in particular is far from ideal here. The people that we met in our travels, however, had a lot to teach us about a different way of life just north of the border. Fulani women with silver in their hair, Mossi men riding cows to their fields, goats that look like gazelles, poulet yassa and ancient mud-relief mosques took us by surprise and made our trip to our northern neighbor constantly intriguing.  For a place so geographically, hydrologically and socially similar to the northern region where we work, we were still forced to constantly reevaluate our assumptions. Though it may not be CWS’ most logical next move, Burkina’s capacity for surprise make me hesitant to draw any final conclusions from our week-long trip.

Fulani girls check out the strangers at their stream.
Ancient mosque (from afar); outside the northern Burkina town of Dori
Until next time, Burkina!

Au revoir, Burkina! Next up, Togo….

– Kathryn