My fellow Fulbrighter at the Université Ki-Zerbo, Jean Ouedraogo, has been trying to start a school here for several years. He is originally from Burkina, and he did his undergraduate education at the university, then went to the states 30 years ago for grad school and to work in American universities. He’s currently at Boston College. But he has always wanted to give something back to his native country. One major problem that a lot of people face is the difficult national secondary school-leaving exam, the “baccalaureat”. About 70% of candidates fail the exam. If you fail, you are basically done with your education – that is, you can take the exam again and again but given the poor preparation that caused you to fail the first time, trying again probably won’t change anything. And without the “bacc”, you can’t go to university or get any sort of professional or civil service job. Jean’s idea is to create a school that will give people a year of intensive training to prepare them to take the exam, either for the first time or for those who flunked the first time and want to try again. He also has the idea of including classes in trades like welding, sewing, auto repair, and so forth to give people options for making a living without the high school diploma. The concept is somewhat like the American community college, something totally unheard of in the French system that Burkina’s higher education takes as its model. I’m sure it will be enormously helpful for Burkina once it gets up and running.
He was originally going to establish the school in his own native village, which is to the north of Ouaga, but he couldn’t find an appropriate piece of land for a price he could afford there. So he went to Gampela, a village to the east of town on the road to Togo, where a friend knew someone who had land to sell. The area is similar to the village of my department chair’s husband, that is, it is getting ready to urbanize as Ouaga grows in that direction. He said that five years ago he could afford the land but now prices have gone up so much that he wouldn’t be able to afford it if he had to buy now.
He has been raising money in the states and looking for partners here, and this year, he has broken ground. Today, he and I and our other Fulbright colleague, Jessie, who will be working in Bobo-Diolassou on her dissertation in sociology, went out to take a look at the site.
The first building is up, four classrooms each intended to hold about 50 students. He’s planning to put solar panels on the roof so he can run computers, lights, and fans.
Renewable energy is quite the thing here now, and there is, I may have mentioned once or twice already, plenty of sunlight. And it will be a long time before the electric grid makes it this far out. I mentioned satellite internet – one of the big resource needs this country has is a decent connection to the Internet. Satellite is not ideal, as the signal has to travel up to the satellite, 50,000 km overhead, and back down to a ground station, taking a quarter-second or so each way, which is noticeably slower than what you have in the developed world, but still preferable to the always-overburdened 3g mobile data network, which probably wouldn’t work this far out of town anyway. Jean has imported a respectable collection of books for his school’s library, but of course on the Internet, with some paid subscriptions, most of the books and journal articles in the world are available at the click of a mouse. If you have a connection.
The first building was built with cement bricks, but subsequent ones will be built with clay bricks dug up in a nearby quarry. We went to visit the quarry and see how the brick order is coming along.
Unlike the concrete cinder blocks, these bricks are solid and basically about as dense as rock. Therefore, they have more insulating effect that cement and keep the heat out better. They are a little less durable than concrete blocks, but not too much, and if properly protected by plaster and roofing, they will last a good long time. And they are entirely climate-neutral, unlike cement which is an industrial product that actually emits a lot of greenhouse gases during the production process.
The production process for these bricks is very simple.
Oumaru digs them out of the ground with a pickaxe. There were an impressive number and depth of holes in this quarry, all dug out by hand by this guy and his brother. The bricks cost 200 CFA (about US$ 0.33) each. For the classroom building, Jean has ordered 8,000 of them at a cost of about $2,500, roughly half what an equivalent amount of cement bricks would cost once you take into account the labor and materials to make them.
The brothers are from Bobo, so Jessie was able to speak to them in Dyula, the language of that region. Dyula is related to Malinké, the language of my African relatives, so it sounded familiar though I only speak a couple words. But Jessie is quite fluent, thanks to two years in Peace Corps in a village in Mali right across the frontier from Bobo. I’m sure she made a heck of an impression.
This is a really impressive project, it fills an important need in the country, and hopefully Jean will be able to make it work. There are all kinds of administrative hassles: when he was talking about all the offices he had to visit to get various signatures, I was reminded of the classic work The Other Path, by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. De Soto argues that the impenetrable bureaucracy in developing countries can lead to things like Jean is experiencing with his land title – five years after buying the property, he has yet to get the deed registered. For De Soto, these sorts of things push people into an informal economy where there is little incentive to invest for the long term. People can get by, se debrouiller, as they say here (it means get yourself out of the fog), but the virtuous cycle of investment that builds real prosperity is not possible unless people can quickly and easily get basic public services like reliable ownership rights, business licences, dispute resolution, and so on. Without the security, you risk losing your investment to, as Jean said, some clever bureaucrat who will confiscate your property for some project of his own imagining, too bad for you and too bad for the country. Let’s hope Burkina can make things work for Jean and this project, though.