Suburbia, African Style

Yesterday, my boss Elise and her husband Philippe took me out to Philippe’s village. He calls it a village, but in fact it is right at the edge of town on the road to Loumbila; I have passed there several times on my way out of town. There is a barricade right near where you turn off to his family’s land where cars have to pay a toll and the police are checking people’s ID now with the new security precautions. From there on into town, it is one continuous market. But for Philippe, it is still the village.

His family are farmers, and he still owns a big field, about seven hectares, where he is trying to pasture some sheep. First, we visited the sheep:

Philippe goats

They are housed in a substantial courtyard located in the middle of what looks like any other urban neighborhood, except that the streets follow no sort of geometric order and instead twist and turn like the country paths they were a few short years ago. Elise confessed that if she didn’t have Philippe with her she would never find the place. I showed her Google Earth satellite view, which helps a little bit.


The main road is in the upper-left corner of this screenshot, and you can see how the tin roofs of the houses have filled in the neighborhood to the south of the road, with a few exceptions. One exception is the large empty space in the center, which is Philippe’s family’s pasture. So far, it has remained free of buildings. This does not mean that it has not experienced the impact of urbanization, though. Like almost any open space in the vicinity of the city, it is covered in empty plastic bags:

Plastic bag field

Every retailer here, down to the most basic market stallholder, gives you your purchases in a non-biodegradable plastic bag. You might use the bag again as a trash can liner, but ultimately, it will get thrown out. With the wind here being so strong, the bags fly along until they find a place to settle, sometimes decorating trees like strange fruit, but generally settling down in a flat open space in the lee of buildings. They also accumulate in low spots that are protected from the wind. Philippe has one such low spot in his field, which got there thanks to his kindness in allowing his neighbors to dig up dirt to make mud bricks out of for their houses. Most of the houses in the neighborhood are made out of mud bricks, sometimes covered in cement plaster. And much of the mud came out of this enormous hole in the ground, big enough to be seen on the satellite view but even more impressive close up.

Big hole

Philippe now has to figure out how to fill in the hole. Some of his animals got down in there and had to be rescued during the rainy season, and apparently one of the neighbors fell in one dark night and injured himself pretty badly. Philippe had some trucks deliver dirt from the road construction project, but the streets are too narrow for big dump trucks to make it in. And every year with the rains more of the edge of the hole erodes and falls in, imperiling the houses that are close to the far edge.

This is what happens when a city that had not even 100,000 people in it when I was born in 1960 (Philippe is a little younger than I am) sees its population multiplied by 20 in a lifetime. Two million Ouagalais means that every corner of the region is filling up with houses, way faster than urban planning or service delivery can keep up. People need somewhere to live, and the city is an attractive place because there are jobs and services here.  You can’t keep people from moving in and, effectively, you can’t keep them from settling in once-rural areas and turning them into unregulated suburbs. You can only work to build regulation and hope the glue of the social contract holds. With enough of a budget, the government could regulate and control, and even build public housing projects, but the money isn’t there. Philippe is still obviously respected in the town. He complained that people had dug up his fence posts for the metal, but nobody appears to have built on his land. Many of his relatives still live in the village; we visited a few. Ultimately, he and his family are riding the wave of urbanization successfully, so far. The pasture is destined to be developed as a private school in the next few years, though. They were talking about where the library was going to go and how to get power delivered. The sheep will presumably have to move farther out of town, unless some less happy fate involving a stewpot awaits them.

I should say that the seasons are changing, in fact, while we were there the temperature hit 39, or 102 for you metric-challenged readers. I was hoping that the coming of the hot season would mean the end of dust and wind, but apparently not. It is still unpleasantly dusty today, and I abandoned plans to ride down to my friend Djibi’s house in la Patte d’Oie because I couldn’t face the 15 km bike ride in the hot, dusty wind. Hopefully this is just a transitional stage, and when it gets to be 40+ every day the air will at least be clear. My nose and lungs will be happier, anyway, even if my sweat glands are getting a workout. On the way back home, we stopped off at a garden shop alongside the reservoir that provides water to the city, and here is a shot of the city skyline that shows how dusty it still is.

Florist lake

4 thoughts on “Suburbia, African Style

  1. Very interesting numbers on population growth. I hadn’t realized that the city is really quite new.

    The plastic bag problem does seem to be a universal developing nation problem. I remember in Albania that if a person purchased any single item–a potato or a pack of cigarettes– it’s was quickly and courteously bagged up. Besa’s brother refers to the ubiquitous blue plastic bag as the, “national flower” of Albania.

    I’m really enjoying your writing and I especially like the photos your adding. The google maps image was great for this post. I’m looking forward to your next adventure and post.


    1. Ouagadougou is an old city, it was established in the 16th century by the Mossi ethnic group, who were coming from what is now northern Ghana, displaced by the expanding Akan Empire. The Mossi established a number of city-state kingdoms, where they ruled over the local folks who over the centuries came to think of themselves as Mossi as well. The traditional king of Ouagadougou, the Moogo Naba, was the high king with a ceremonial primacy over the other Mossi kingdoms although they pretty much ran their own cities on their own. When the area was conquered by the French at the end of the 19th century, they ruled directly through a colonial civil service that was mostly drawn from educated Mossi converts to Catholic Christianity. Ouaga was the colonial capital. But the city didn’t grow much in the colonial era; mostly the French saw Upper Volta as a source of labor and did not do much industrial development. With the coming of independence in 1960, and especially after the coup that brought President Lamizama, a Muslim, to power in 1966, Burkina started down the path of import-substitution industrialization centered on the capital, and the urban population skyrocketed after that. Even now, although the government (at least under Blaise Compaoré until 2014) is very neo-liberal, there is still a big migration to the city with all sorts of folks trying to find work and living space. How do you keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen the bright lights?


  2. If yu will look carefully near this “Plastic Bag Garden” you will find the cemetery of “Single Socks.” They must go somewhere. What a jolly dance they could have when they all get together! Love Mama


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